Published 5:00 pm Saturday, February 12, 2011
To Gavin Spieker, being black doesn’t mean he’s African-American.
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“I’m not an African boy,” Spieker said as he and seven other black Austin High School students met with Principal Brad Bergstrom. The meeting was part of a monthly series of what Bergstrom calls “courageous conversations,” about how AHS deals with diversity. Bergstrom hopes he and other high school staff will come away with a better understanding of what it means to be black in Austin.
Bergstrom’s efforts are part of how Austin Public Schools are dealing with diversity and integration, an issue likely to become bigger over the next 10 years as community demographics change.
Most Austin residents know the community’s cultural mix has changed during the past 10 years. After the state Department of Education required the district develop an integration plan, school officials began hiring success coaches who have turned out to be integral to the diversity efforts.
Yet school leaders will soon have to give even more attention to diversity issues. State and national attention is focused on an achievement gap between white students and students of color, and a dramatic shift in integration funding may be ahead. This year, 40 percent of Woodson Kindergarten Center’s students are Hispanic, which means all district schools will be educating more students of color in coming years.
Bergstrom grew up short for his age and he thought he knew what it was like to be different, to be picked on. He learned how little he knew about that when he attended a conference about the challenges that black male students face.
There, he listened as Hopkins High School Principal Willie Jett told a story about being mistaken for a robber while walking out of a bank; police had drawn guns on the Twin Cities principal in front of his family. The story struck home for Bergstrom when Jett said he was most angry that he’d forgotten he was black, which meant he was more likely to be accused of robbery.
“I had no idea how important this was going to be for me,” Bergstrom said. “I had in my mind what I thought it meant to be picked on … to be looked at differently. I had no clue. I had absolutely no clue.”
Conference presenters also talked about the reality that when young black men walked down the street, people act differently. Car doors lock, people step out of the way.
“If you are different than the majority, you are going to be looked at differently,” Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom thought speaking and listening to a group of black male students about their experiences at school could help build understanding in Austin. He began organizing a group based on the Pacific Education Group’s Courageous Conversations model.
The first group met in September, where they openly talked about what problems they had with school, about how they reacted to situations where their teachers and coaches didn’t understand them. At first, the students were bitter, complaining about the system.
“I needed to just let them talk,” Bergstrom said. “They really just needed to come in and just talk.”
Bergstrom said the group has slowly built a sense of trust among its members.
“I thought it was pretty cool that we got to explain how to better the school. Just make it more, not necessarily easier, but more effective,” said Eli Riley, an AHS senior.
Riley started attending meetings in November, after a friend invited him. Since he began, his grades have improved from Cs and Ds to As and Bs, something he credits in part to the meetings and in part to his teachers being more receptive to his needs.
The discussions aren’t necessarily about race, Riley said. They’re more about culture. What Riley and the other students talk about are issues these students have because they act in a different way.
“It’s how we would react in a certain way,” Riley said.
Bergstrom said he has learned that there’s a perception that teachers at AHS don’t listen to students of color when they need help and, sometimes, teachers need to give students space. During a meeting in December, Spieker told Bergstrom and other students that sometimes, when he’s having a bad day, he just needs time alone to work things out. It doesn’t help if a teacher repeatedly asks him to concentrate on his work, or continuously asks him what’s wrong.
“Sometimes I just need space,” Spieker said.
It’s hard for some teachers to do that, as Bergstrom told the group, because teachers genuinely want to help students, which means talking to students who aren’t paying attention to classwork. That doesn’t mean students can slack off, but it means teachers can leave the student alone for a few minutes.
“I think those are strategies that will not only work with our young black males but I think with all of our students,” Bergstrom said.
Raquel Imbert has been a success coach for three years. As a former creative marketing guru in Brazil, she didn’t realize how much she would enjoy working with kids. She hadn’t thought about being in education until a success coach job opened up at Ellis Middle School. Imbert, who’d worked at a bank in Austin since she came here in 2005, decided to take on a new challenge.
“I love it here,” Imbert said. “I do believe that if each of us bring … our knowledge, our strength, our experiences, then we could have better results for everyone.”
In her three years, Imbert has helped Ellis grow more accepting of different cultures, simply by always being around. She helps with Girl Scouts, Ellis’s Diversity Club and a host of other activities while acting as a contact person for primarily Spanish-speaking families, guiding them through the various paperwork and processes that crop up at Ellis and throughout the community.
It hasn’t always been easy, as the success coaches had to make up their own jobs by listening to parents’ and students’ needs.
Imbert was recently hired as one of two regional coordinators by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, the pre-eminent group on diversity in the classroom. She’ll be working with diversity coordinators across the southern part of the state, presenting information on college readiness and life after high school to parents and students of color. According to Imbert, her new job will involve sharing some of the things she and other success coaches have done in Austin with other districts across the state.
The district’s diversity efforts stretch beyond coaches and conversations about race to smaller gestures like adding more Spanish books to the library.
That’s what Woodson Kindergarten Center Principal Jean McDermott learned when she met with parents, who explained that when students first learn words in their primary language, they’re able to then easily learn to translate those words in English.
“The give and take has been wonderful,” McDermott said. She credits Woodson’s staff for helping the school better serve students of color, as teachers and success coaches are usually the first to hear parents’ concerns. “Our teachers are probably our best connection, our best bridgers of diversity,” she said.
District officials will continue diversity measures, including the successful after school programming introduced this year. The district’s four-year integration plan will be renewed in February with slight alterations to make integration staff more accountable, according to Kristi Beckman, the district’s integration coordinator.
Those who’ve taken part in one of the district’s diversity efforts feel district officials are on the right track.
“If any culture in the school system is feeling that they’re not represented well in how teachers handle situations, then they should definitely be allowed to participate in (courageous conversations),” Riley said.
Austin isn’t the only district dealing with growing diversity. Rural districts across the state and nation are facing the same issues as Austin.
Bryan Davis, superintendent of Columbus Public Schools in Wisconsin, knows that all too well. A former assistant principal in Green Bay Public Schools, he watched Green Bay go through a similar struggle.
“We really need to sit down with our students of color and have some dialogue about what they experience,” Davis said. Davis works with the Midwest Critical Whiteness Collective, a group led by University of Minnesota Professor Tim Lensmire, studying how white culture affects students in school. Davis studies how white administrators subconsciously encourage their own culture, which students from diverse backgrounds may not always understand or feel comfortable with. Davis said proactive efforts are key to understand students’ needs.
“I would applaud the (district) for having the courage to be able to have those conversations,” Davis said.
While Davis’s current school district, about a third the size of Austin, includes a 95 percent white population as opposed to Austin’s 69 percent, Davis hopes to start efforts in Columbus dealing with what it means to be white.
In the meantime, district staff and students will continue learning about each other’s cultures.
“Diversity is a state of mind,” Imbert said. “It’s being open to things that (we’re) not familiar with.”