The Omaha Public School district maintains its own research department that measures what and who is in its classrooms. Omaha’s largest district churns out daily lessons to more than 50,000 students in 84 schools. About 67 percent are minorities, speaking 100 different languages. Navigating this complexity requires training and some required reading.
The book OPS is assigning its teachers — The Cultural Proficiency Journey: Moving Beyond Ethical Barriers Toward Profound Social Change — features a serene cover illustration showing a lone sailboat floating on an open sea. Its public reaction has been far stormier.
Teacher training – known as professional development within the district – is hardly ever a public issue, and thus OPS is rarely obliged to inform the public. In this case, initial reaction to a book that challenges white cultural dominance in increasingly diverse classrooms generated a negative response.
Most of the resistance to the book originated outside of the school system, said Janice Garnett, the assistant superintendent of human resources in OPS. “This is a tough topic to talk about,” Garnett said. But it has been talked about within OPS – a lot.
As the colors of its classrooms shifted, the district really took notice in 2002 when the student body became a majority-minority, Garnett said. It was then time, or past time, for everyone to develop a global awareness.
Community groups then spearheaded a dialogue with OPS on cultural training. The discussions led to a pilot program across several schools with guidance from the Minnesota Humanities Center, which is affiliated with the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Garnett said a committee formed and focused on how best to use funds the district got from the federal Stimulus Act of 2009. Culturally responsive instruction and teacher development became top issues.
The health care industry and the corporate environment provided models for the district.
“The focus of cultural competence in health services has been ongoing for decades,” Garnett said.
Treating diverse people for health problems is one thing; educating diverse people during their most impressionable years is another. Educators approach the challenge weighted by the pressure of political and social baggage.
The book urges educators to scrutinize their beliefs, values and assumptions and instructs them on how to remove ethical barriers in the classroom. “It’s a whole bunch of looking at what’s in your classroom, who’s in your classroom and how do you go beyond to make sure they’re successful,” Garnett said.
OPS has some rough seas to navigate. More than half of African American children live in poverty, which is five times the rate for white children, according to the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Public Affairs Research. That’s one-third the poverty rate for Omaha’s Hispanic children at 29 percent.
In the Omaha Public School district, that means almost 70 percent of the district’s students are considered impoverished, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.
Ethnicity and economic status weigh almost equally heavy on students’ performance. It’s well-documented that greater variances are found within classes of the same ethnicity than between different ethnicities.
Class competency and cultural competency then become dependent ideas.
“You have to address teachers’ proficiency, not color,” Garnett said. Teachers will read the book in chapters and then discuss it in small groups throughout the year in professional development sessions.
The book is one tool in trying to close testing gaps between ethnicities. Forty-three percent of African American students in fourth grade met NDE reading standards in 2010. That’s compared to 54 percent of Hispanic students and 77 percent of white students. In math, 29 percent of African American students met state standards; 44 percent of Hispanic students met standards and 67 percent of white students met them.
Officials likely can’t pinpoint just how badly the district needs to enlighten its teachers on minority culture awareness. But it does know that the majority of its students aren’t white, and thus come from a far different background than most of its teachers.
“I don’t think it’s bad,” Garnett said, addressing the current level of multicultural competency. She called it an opportunity for improvement. “If you can build relationships with these young people, you definitely can get them engaged and get them to start being active participants in the educational environment,” she said.
“It’s more than about race. It’s about getting to know one another, being able to coexist and being able to relate to one another,”