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Cultural awareness in the classroom: Kennedy Elementary

Bringing cultural awareness to the classroom

By Emily Kirkwood
September 8, 2017

In a three-part blog series, Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Midwest takes an up-close look at cultural competency in education. This topic is important to the Midwest Achievement Gap Research Alliance’s (MAGRA’s) efforts to increase understanding and use of research to close stark and persistent academic achievement gaps—particularly the gap between Black and White students. Improving a school community’s cultural competency may play a role in closing the achievement gap (Coggins & Campbell, 2008). Cultural competency generally refers to educators’ ability to serve students from all cultural backgrounds, particularly those who don’t come from the dominant culture represented in a school (Landa, 2011).

Principal Allison DeGraaf Picture
  Principal Allison DeGraaf

The issue of cultural competency hits close to home for Principal Allison DeGraaf at Kennedy Elementary School in Janesville, Wisconsin, a member of MAGRA.

“We had over 30 different foster children of all backgrounds when I was growing up,” DeGraaf said in a July phone interview, referring to her family’s home. “As I grew up, I learned about differences in others and what they can overcome. I transfer this knowledge to the work that I do.”

Since Kennedy Elementary opened its doors in 1999, the school’s leaders have prioritized cultural competency. DeGraaf and Stacy Bembinster, the professional school counselor who works in close partnership with DeGraaf on the school’s cultural competency efforts, have enthusiastically contributed to this work from day one. To them, cultural competency signifies not only an awareness of other people’s cultures but also a recognition of one’s own culture and how it influences interactions

“Anytime we build our understanding about ourselves and others, we can better support our students,” DeGraaf said. Hear more from our phone conversation. (transcript below)

Bembinster echoes this sentiment. “Every time I meet a student or family, it’s my job not to put my view or my culture on them, but to meet them where they are,” she said.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction recognized the work at Kennedy Elementary by inviting DeGraaf to join Promoting Excellence for All: State Superintendent’s Task Force on Wisconsin’s Achievement Gap. It brought together 18 educators—superintendents, principals, teachers, curriculum coordinators, and instructional coaches—from traditional public, charter, and private schools with demonstrated success closing the achievement gap. Given that Wisconsin had the nation’s widest race-based achievement gaps in fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade mathematics, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the state faced an acute need to address the problem.

The task force members shared and brainstormed strategies, resources, and policy changes to address the achievement gap. Specifically, the task force sought to:

  • Examine and recommend proactive instructional strategies to close achievement gaps in Wisconsin.
  • Develop resources for Wisconsin practitioners working to close achievement gaps in their schools and districts.
  • Recommend local board policy changes that can support efforts to close achievement gaps in Wisconsin schools.

The Midwest Comprehensive Center (MWCC) and Wisconsin DPI provided research support to the task force, with MWCC conducting a literature review, as well as facilitation support. The task force’s work culminated in two products: a report and an eCourse.

  • The report breaks down the task force’s beliefs, support from the research, and recommended strategies into four categories: effective instruction, student-teacher relationships, family and community engagement, and school and instructional leadership. MWCC’s literature review informed the framework for this report, and the supporting research is highlighted throughout the resource.
  • The eCourse is designed to help educators deepen their understanding and use of proven strategies to close the achievement gap. It comprises three learning modules: Understanding Race in Education, Exploring the Data, and Using the Strategies.

The task force’s work helped DeGraaf and Bembinster analyze and build on existing efforts at the school. That said, Kenney Elementary already had launched a number of initiatives to increase and support culturally competent practices. For example, many staff members participate in a book study that uses literature to explore different cultures and implicit biases. The school also has a “looping” practice in which teachers spend two years with each class of students, helping teachers build closer relationships with students and families.

One noteworthy example focused on the school’s efforts to close a mathematics achievement gap for Black students. DeGraaf and her team identified the standards that needed attention in each grade level in mathematics, solicited input on effective teaching practices directly from students, and considered student engagement strategies. Those insights helped improve instruction, contributing to a 30% increase in one year in mathematics achievement for the school’s Black students, according to Wisconsin Forward Exam results.

Bembinster says the task force’s work added value to the school’s already robust efforts. “Since we opened our doors, this work has been part of our school improvement plan,” she said. Promoting Excellence for All was an extension of that work, but, she says, “It provides me with more tools to help my staff and more of a research base to back me up.” For example, Bembinster plans to implement the “Angel List” strategy recommended in the report that links each student with at least two staff members who connect with the student regularly. This strategy appears in the “Student-Teacher Relationships” section of the report, which cites research evidence on the connection between positive relationships with teachers and student success, particularly for students of color (Decker, Dona, & Christenson, 2006; Green, Rhodes, Hirsch, Suarez-Orozco, & Camic, 2008; Murray & Malmgren, 2005). Additionally, many of the teachers at Kennedy Elementary intend to take the eCourse.

Despite Kennedy Elementary’s success, Bembinster recognizes that the work requires ongoing efforts to practice and improve cultural competency within the school community. “On paper, you read about it and think ‘Of course! I want to do what’s best for my students.’ The difficult part is when the rubber meets the road.”

For schools and educators seeking to improve their cultural competency, DeGraaf and Bembinster counsel patience. DeGraaf cautions, “When you try to implement anything new, it’s important not to go too fast. Maybe choose one focus area per year, think about how to monitor that, and add more as staff begin to see the impact that it has on their students.”

Bembinster’s advice is similar: “When people look at our district, they see that we’re doing a lot, but we’ve been doing this since 1999! We try to add something a little different each year. The key is to focus on building relationships, and not just doing different things for the sake of doing them.”

Stay tuned for two more blog posts in the Bringing Cultural Awareness to the Classroom series, on the Midwest and Plains Equity Assistance Center and Minnesota’s American Indian students.

Transcript of audio clip from Principal Allison DeGraaf: Any time we build our own understanding about ourselves and others, we are able to better support our students and family and community members. When it comes to discipline, it really strikes me because when a student does something that may look as though they wanted to be very hurtful to another student or staff member, sometimes when we step back and look at what has happened to them personally—Has there been trauma involved? As a Black person, have they been a part of microaggressions that affect the way they respond to others so that they maybe react in different ways than a student who has not been through some of those same things? So in how I approach it, and how I process the discipline issues with kids, it may look a little bit different. Now do they always have to be held accountable for a behavior that may be inappropriate? Yes. But I think if you approach it with that understanding, with that compassion, and with that listening and redirection approach, then you can have a lot more success with the student.

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Author(s) Information

Emily Kirkwood Staff Picture

Emily Kirkwood

Communications Specialist | REL Midwest


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