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Schools’ staff gets lessons in culture

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After Greenwood’s new superintendent was hired last summer, he saw quickly how the school district was becoming more diverse.

Over the past five years, the percentage of Hispanic students has risen 43 percent, and today Hispanic students make up about 10 percent of Greenwood students.

Superintendent Kent DeKoninck wondered how prepared Greenwood was to teach these students, such as whether the school district had enough teachers who could teach English as a second language and if Greenwood should start printing documents in Spanish as well as English.

The school district has more students from other cultures as well. The percentage of Asian students has risen at Greenwood over the past five years by 45 percent, and the percentage of African-American students rose by about 38 percent, according to Indiana Department of Education data. The percentage of white students at Greenwood schools is down about 6 percent.

DeKoninck met with parents and residents throughout the school year, and many had similar questions about the different cultures of students. Residents weren’t concerned that students of different races, religions or countries were being harassed, but they did wonder what the school was doing so that employees understood more about their diverse cultures.

That’s why this spring, about 30 Greenwood schools employees met with national speaker Gary Howard, who works with groups around the country that are trying to be more considerate of different cultures. His activities and exercises were designed to get the group to think more about the different backgrounds, cultures and experiences Greenwood students may have had and how that can affect them at school.

Next year, teams of teachers, principals and other staff at each Greenwood school will conduct similar activities with all school district employees. DeKoninck’s goal is for everyone — from teachers to custodians to bus drivers — to know more about the varied cultural backgrounds of Greenwood’s students.

That will help students feel more included and accepted and will give administrators and teachers greater insight into challenges students face, he said.

“Obviously, when kids come to school every day they’re going to feel more valued, they’re going to feel more loved,” DeKoninck said.

Minority students might worry about how their peers from other races or cultures feel about them, especially if they’ve been discriminated against before. Other students, including those from low-income families, may be worried about where their next meal is coming from, DeKoninck said.

DeKoninck wants all Greenwood employees — from the teachers and principals students see during most of their time at school to the bus drivers who pick them up and drop them off — to think more about the concerns students may have. If employees better understand students’ fears and worries, they can help them feel more welcome at school, DeKoninck said.

“It’s just having that appreciation, understanding, of where kids are coming from,” DeKoninck said. “This is just one more piece to make us whole.”

As employees understand more about the backgrounds of Greenwood’s students, they’ll know more about how well they’re teaching students from other countries and cultures and what they need to do to improve, DeKoninck said.

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