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Educators look for help making the most of cultural differences

If Wes Edwards had his way, the middle-school teacher would regularly invite parents into the classroom to help bridge the language divide between his Spanish-speaking students and educators.

More than 90 percent of students at his Washington Heights charter school, New Heights Academy, speak Spanish at home. But only about a third of the staff speaks Spanish, Edwards estimates — leading to communication problems among students, parents, and teachers.

“In order to really have support in the classroom and from families, you need to have translation for everything. Parents need to feel comfortable speaking Spanish,” Edwards said, adding that he understands just enough Spanish from growing up in Texas to speak to his students’ parents.

Edwards said he thought the language barriers contributed to low test scores for students like his because they cannot always get help from their parents, who often barely speak English. He said he also thought his students often feel disconnected from what they study in school.

Edwards said he would like to use his students’ language challenges and cultural heritages as assets, rather than see them as challenges, but he wasn’t sure how to.

He hoped he would find answers last week at a daylong conference on how to incorporate lessons on diversity and cultural sensitivity into the classroom. The conference, organized by New York University Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, drew nearly 300 educators from across the city and state for speeches, panel discussions, and workshops.

Among the speakers was Gloria Ladson-Billings, an education professor who has argued that the “achievement gap” should be rebranded as “educational debt” to move away from the idea that students who fall behind are doing something wrong. Escaping that idea, which some education researchers have called a “deficit model,” was a central goal of the conference.

For many of the attendees, the conference was an opportunity to learn how to begin talking about the specific challenges that their students face and the impact of those challenges on their classrooms.

“It’s exposed me to services that I didn’t know existed,” said Kimberle Wiseman, who teaches a self-contained special education class at a city public school.

The conference was the sixth of its kind hosted by the Metropolitan Center’s Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality. The assistance center aims to help educators grapple with the fact that students of color are overrepresented among students who are suspended, assigned to special education classes, or perform poorly in school.

Those patterns hold true in many districts, and New York City is no outlier. Last November, when the city Department of Education released detailed suspension statistics for the first time, it said that more than 50 percent of students who had been suspended the previous year were black and 30 percent required special education services. In contrast, black students make up 33 percent of city enrollment and students requiring special education services make up 17 percent.

The State Education Department flags school districts that have “disproportionate” statistics. School districts that are cited work with the state to review their data and design a plan to help students who have fallen behind without assigning too many of them to special education classes.

“One of the best things to happen to the South Huntington School District is that we were cited,” said Jacqueline Harris, assistant superintendent of the Long Island district. “We had some difficult conversations about race … but we stuck with it and moved beyond the typical conversation.”

Several educators said that they hoped they could learn from the event’s workshops and presentations to help get the difficult conversations flowing at their schools.

“It’s really been a process of putting a plan together,” said Dawn Fechuck, the school board president at Newburgh Enlarged City School District, which the state has recently been flagged. She plans to tell the other board members about the idea of a “community school” model, which she learned about in one of the workshops she attended. With 63 percent of Newburgh’s student population at or below the poverty level, their needs often extend far beyond the classroom, Fechuck said.

But first, the district adopted “a new code of conduct so that there would be less punitive measures,” she said.

The city’s education department has taken some of those steps. In June, the department proposed updates to its discipline code to reduce the number of behaviors that can be punished with suspensions. Smoking or lying to a teacher could net students suspensions in the past, but not under the revised code.

The same month, the teachers’ union got the city’s support to create a $600,000 grant to support six schools in launching community school model by September. The schools will use the money to bring health and dental clinics, tutoring, counseling programs, and social services to students and their families — with the idea that not only will the resources clear obstacles to learning, but that closing the distance between home and school will also make educators more aware of their students’ needs.

“Truly great educators are the ones who know the children and how they learn,” said Lester Young Jr., a member of New York State’s Board of Regents, at the workshop. “We need [teachers] to move beyond these deficit models to really know and understand the children in front of them.”

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