Creating Culturally Responsive Schools

Guest post by Helen Gladden

Schools that strive to be culturally responsive believe that there is no one right “set” of experiences, beliefs, and values. They know that each student’s cultural set is his or her self identity. Most importantly, they understand that students are far more likely to fully engage in the learning process when their self identity is understood, accepted, and valued. They are committed to building trust with and among their students, and they know that trust is built through respect.

So, how does a school go about building a culture of respect for a diversity of experiences, beliefs, and values driven by such influences as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, and family composition? How do we open our minds to narratives that are different from our own?

Diverse group of studentsWe must listen. We must give voice to students’ lived experiences. Experiences are real and they are hard to ignore.

Within my school district, we have held a number of fishbowl-style panels comprised of graduates from a variety of backgrounds with the adults from the district and school sites. The sharing of the graduates’ narratives helps us understand what we are doing well and where we can improve. Sometimes we find that we are doing better in some areas than we thought we were, while we have further work to do in areas in which we thought we were doing quite well. The voices of lived experiences give us a clear picture of our students’ realities.

The panel format involves a facilitator asking questions of the panel members. The questions cover such topics as:

  • What types of expectations did teachers have in regard to student achievement?
  • Did the panelists recognize people like themselves in the curriculum?
  • Did the panelists feel they were held to the same level of expectations as other students?
  • Were the panelists encouraged to take on leadership roles and to enroll in honors/AP courses?
  • Were there adults on campus whom the panelists felt they could trust and turn to for academic and/or personal advice?
  • Who did the panelists view as role models at the schools?
  • How would the panelists describe the schools they attended in terms of cultural understanding?
  • How well did students of diverse backgrounds interact both inside and outside of the classroom?

From one of our panels, we learned that we are doing well in the area of building supportive relationships with our students. As one panelist stated, “There were several teachers I formed bonds and relationships with who still keep up to date with me, asking me how I’m doing. They actually really care about me and my accomplishments.” From another panel, we learned the importance of being proactive in reaching out to parents and guardians, some of whom want very much to be involved with the school but are uncomfortable making the first move or are unsure what they can do within their very busy schedules.

One panelist also offered the following suggestion: “I think something you can do on campus that I think would be really important is to implement some sort of cultural studies class. It’s important for students to understand other cultures before they leave high school because throughout life, they will interact with people from a wide variety of cultures.” We now provide a cultural studies course at the high school level.

Certainly, creating a culturally responsive school involves more than carving out time during one week or month of the school year to celebrate the accomplishments of various groups. It involves using curriculum on a daily basis that honors each student’s cultural “set,” showing authentic respect for each student’s self-identify, and holding all students to high standards and expectations. It is about building trust with and among students. It is about creating safe places for all students to learn.

What ideas do you have for increasing cultural responsiveness in education?

Helen Gladden is the 2016 California Assistant Principal of the Year. Currently, she is the principal of East Avenue Middle School in Livermore, CA, where she is committed to ensuring safe places for all students to learn.

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2 Comments

  • Michael Thomas says:

    Great idea, Helen. Our school does short individual exit interviews with our graduates through our guidance counselors. I like this panel approach better as encourages a dialogue among many. How do you go about choosing graduates? Do you only select your most recent graduates or do you bring in graduates from a few years ago?

  • Helen says:

    We try to get graduates from across the years. This gives us a perspective on whether issues are persistent, have improved, have worsened, etc.

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