Growing need for diversity training

Published 12:29 am Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Austin schools’ success coach Ojoye Akane spoke to parents of African heritage Thursday afternoon at Sumner Elementary about helping their children strive and fit in and succeed. -- Eric Johnson/

School district adjusts to cultural differences with growing diversity

This story originally appeared along side “Behavioral system touted as big change” in the Sunday print edition of the Herald.

OOchudo Chan loves math and biology. She wants to be a doctor when she graduates college, so she can help people back in Africa.

The Austin High School sophomore came to town when she was in seventh-grade, arriving with her mother from Kenya to join her father, who was already in the U.S. Though she doesn’t think her English is perfect yet, she speaks and jokes with that teenage ease every high schooler possesses.

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“I love it here,” Chan said.

Chan is one of a growing number of black students in Austin Public Schools. Though Austin’s student population is rapidly growing due to an increase in Mower County births, more residents of color are calling Austin home every year and Austin’s black population is feeling the increase, too.

Yet like Austin’s Hispanic student population, there are growing pains to every happy increase. A recent U.S. study identified more black and Hispanic students receiving harsh discipline and run-ins with police nationwide, and though Austin fares much better than the average, the district has a disproportionate number of black students receiving out-of-school suspensions compared to white students. District officials and black, specifically African-born parents, are finding ways to bridge cultural divides to help black students succeed in Austin.

The cultural divide

It’s no secret Austin has one of the largest concentrations of Sudanese students in the state, according to Success Coaches Santino Deng and Ojoye Akane. That’s what they told a group of parents last week at Sumner Elementary School, the second meeting they’ve held for African parents.

Austin junior Jeremiah Nyikew, with sophomore Ochudo Cham, talks about coming to Austin and fitting into a school that is making strides to help its African-American students succeed.

“A lot of children in these schools are from our country than any other district in the state, meaning Sudan …” Akane told parents. “This school district has the most population.”

With an increasing Sudanese population comes an increasing need for common ground. In 2011, about 57 black students received out-of-school suspensions district wide, a little less than 20 percent of Austin’s 303 black students. What’s more, those 57 students were a little less than 20 percent of the 309 students who received out-of-school suspensions last year, a disproportionate number since Austin’s black students only make up about 7 percent of the district’s student population.

Though not every black student comes from Sudan (or a foreign country), district officials say problems come down to interpretation and cultural differences.

“What we have to begin to understand is the cultural differences,” said AHS Principal Brad Bergstrom. “Our black males, they are coming to us from very diverse backgrounds” whether from different school districts or different countries.

“Their experiences and their exposure they’ve had has really formed who they are and we have to understand where that’s coming from,” he said.

Bergstrom said a larger-than-average percentage of students of color have received behavioral referrals at AHS in past years, which prompted AHS officials to find ways to reach out to students, through holding informal conversations on race and school to streamlining counseling services and increasing one-on-one time with students.

District-wide, staff work on various initiatives including the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports learning system at Ellis Middle School and Woodson Kindergarten Center. The PBIS defines classroom behavior and consequences for students while setting a consistent disciplinary rubric for staff, in effect taking subjective disciplinary judgments out of the equation and holding students to high standards.

“There’s been a very positive change in school climate,” said John Alberts, educational services director.

Though PBIS may not go district-wide, some of the practices like defining classroom behavior and consistent consequence systems may be used at other buildings. The issue with getting PBIS in every school, aside from the various grant applications, is dealing with each school’s particular needs.

“There hasn’t really been one initiative that has been the right fit for everyone,” Alberts said.

That’s where the Success Coaches come in. Though the catch-all advisers are predominantly Hispanic, Success Coaches help all students in the classroom and often act as the bridge between parents and teachers.

Common language

Coaching is exactly what Akane, Deng, and Enrique Camarena did last week at Sumner. The Success Coaches, Principal Sheila Berger and other integration staff went over basic concerns for district parents, including the importance of parent-teacher conferences, reading to children, establishing parental authority according to U.S. customs and more. The meeting resembles the Success Coaches’ approach it took with Latino parents several years ago, when staff first explained school procedures and events to a booming Hispanic population.

“I think there are similarities,” said Kristi Beckman, Austin’s integration coordinator. “The first parent meetings in Spanish were focused on giving parents information to help them support their kids … and empowered by inviting them into the buildings and creating a network of parents.

“That’s what the African parent meeting is aiming to do as well.”

The district added Akane as a success coach this year to match the increasing need. He works 30 hours a week helping students, talking with parents, and planning initiatives for black students, including a recent visit to Mankato State University for its annual Pan-African Student Leadership Conference.

“It’s very exciting,” Akane said about starting an African Parents Meeting with Deng.

It appeared parents appreciate the meeting as well. One mother, Martha, told the room about her struggles as a single parent who came to the U.S. six years ago, working the second shift while raising five children. She has to leave for work at 2:30 p.m. and come home by 1:30 a.m., far past when her children have come home, made dinner and went to bed. She hears her children have been fighting at school, and she doesn’t know what to do. To her, it’s unthinkable her children could act that way and treat their elders with disrespect.

In Sudan and other African countries, parents pay for and send students to school in other places, where teachers have ultimate authority. In the U.S., things are a little different, and parents have to step in at times in school.

“Teachers’ hands are tied,” Akane told parents.

That’s why Success Coaches are there to explain cultural differences to parents and teachers, helping each side to give a little and help each other. School officials offered advice to Martha like baby-sitting for second shift workers or contacting the Parenting Resource Center for other services. It may take time, but school officials are confident parents can adjust to the district while staff helps families and students succeed.

Working together

There’s still plenty of work to do, as new families face similar working and living conditions to Martha.

“That is a situation that people live in,” Deng said.

The trick is to continue PBIS-related measures and give students of all types as many opportunities as possible. AHS plans to roll out a college and workforce readiness initiative this fall, which will give all high school students basic information about enrollment, college life, college application requirements and more. Though teachers aren’t set on the details, the initiative will be modeled after Ellis’ Ramp Up to Readiness program from the University of Minnesota. Learning how to navigate college, university and vocational school life is a lot like learning how to navigate school in the U.S.

“No human being should try to guess expectations if they don’t know the culture,” Alberts said.

There’s plenty of success stories in the works in Austin. Though not enough black students have graduated from AHS to determine black graduation rates, students like junior Jeremiah Nyikew are already planning to go to college. Nyikew has toured the University of Minnesota — Twin Cities and Winona State University and will take the ACT soon. He’s not sure about what to major in, but he thinks accounting might be fun. He came to Austin in kindergarten and enjoys life at AHS, where he plays football and basketball.

“It’s pretty peaceful here,” he said.