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Will culture-focused public school help or hurt diversity efforts?

The St. Paul Board of Education faces some big decisions tonight, including whether to create a Hmong-focused K-6 magnet school at Phalen Lake on the city’s East Side.

(Editor’s note: The school board Tuesday night did approve the new magnet school.) 

The idea of a culturally-specific public school raises complicated issues and intriguing questions: Is it a focused approach toward student achievement and enrichment, or is it a form of isolation? How do we deal with cultural diversity in public education? And what is the best environment to prepare students to become successful in diverse settings?

In recent months, diversity in public schools has received national attention. In June, the Supreme Court struck down school desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville. In August, a national Pew Hispanic Center report revealed that although white students feel they have become less isolated from students of color, African-American and Latino students feel they have become more isolated from white students and from each other.

Just recently, Myron Orfield, of the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota, wrote about local public school trends in a Star Tribune op-ed piece. In 1992, he says, only nine metro-area schools were predominantly minority. By 2006, however, the number of schools in which most students were African-American, Latino, Asian or American Indian had jumped to 248.

Of course, there is a big difference between racial segregation dictated by historical and economic realities and a freely chosen, culturally-focused school. The St. Paul proposal does not constitute racial segregation, because the magnet school would be open to all students.

School superintendent sees benefits to Hmong school
Rather, says St. Paul School Superintendent Meria Carstarphen, “It’s a way to bring focus that makes kids more excited about education and provides more choice for parents. There is no intent to segregate schools. This is a great education with a bonus, a unique exposure to a different culture. It enhances a child’s experience. You have to value both, academics and culture.”

The proposal also comes at a time when the district has seen students leaving the system for charter schools, such as St. Paul’s Hmong Academy. Creating the Hmong magnet school is something that came out of meetings with staff, parents, community members and students, Carstarphen says. “Hands down, we outperform charter schools.” She compares the proposed Hmong magnet to similar programs at the district’s French and Spanish immersion schools.

Hmong students are “caught between two worlds,” says Kazoua Kong-Thao, a St. Paul school board member recognized as a national expert on Hmong education. “Learning about my identity and culture helped me succeed personally and professionally. That’s what we want to offer. The question is: How can we better prepare our kids to be Hmong-American?”

Kong-Thao sees the school as an opportunity for both Hmong and non-Hmong students to become bilingual and bicultural. She notes, however, that it is likely that the majority of the students who would attend the school would be Hmong.

By definition, though, that would be a school dominated by one ethnic/cultural group, and that raises some concerns.

Some see separation as a setback for cross-cultural learning
“How would they learn about other cultures?” That’s what my co-worker Tayna Austin asked as we chatted about the proposed changes. She is African American, and wary. Her 9-year-old daughter attends a St. Paul school.

“My daughter has a friend from Africa who is Muslim and taught her all about the head scarf; she came home so excited and was telling me all about it,” Tayna says. “She’s picked up some Spanish from Latino kids in her class, and she tells them about our traditions. I love that. Kids teach kids. If they don’t have that interaction, what does that mean? What about offering multicultural programming for all students, in all schools?”

Tayna’s perspective is echoed by such studies as a 2002 report by Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project that found positive educational results from diverse environments. A substantial majority of high school seniors reported a high level of comfort with members of other racial and ethnic groups. Most importantly, they said their school experiences increased their understanding of diverse points of view and made them want to interact more with people of different backgrounds.

That raises an interesting question: Do students at culturally-specific schools have enough interaction and knowledge about other cultures to succeed in an increasingly diverse nation and an increasingly interconnected world?

“They are valid concerns,” says Lesa Covington Clarkson, assistant professor at the U of M’s College of Education & Human Development, who has worked with both African-American and Hmong charter schools in the Twin Cities.

But she says, “People need to look at the flip side of this — what happens if students never understand their own culture?”

Culture-specific schools can boost self-esteem
Although the topic is relatively new to researchers, data show increased self-esteem for students attending culturally-specific schools, Covington Clarkson says.

“It cannot but help how kids see themselves, their sense of identity, who they are, who they can become,” she says. “What people need to think of is what is right at that moment for that child?”

Building children’s self-esteem can make them more motivated in school, she says. “It comes down to choice. If this has potentially great impact on students, then why not? Potentially, this could change lives.”

Bic Ngo, another U of M assistant professor and a colleague of Covington Clarkson, has worked extensively with Hmong-American and Lao-American students, families and communities.

She is more cautious, however, and wonders whether despite community forums and outreach by the district, Hmong and African-American families feel alienated in the schools generally.

“It could be that parents and students are feeling that they are ignored or not understood by the school curriculum, teachers and staff. If this is the case, having a cultural or ethnic academy in the school won’t address the deeper issues in the system,” Ngo says. “I’d also caution against the integration of ‘culture’ into schools that ends up creating stereotypes or simplistic categories to understand students and families, because culture is always changing. The trick is to address culture in ways that highlight the customs, practices and values of the past but also attend to what’s happening now in the practices of students and families.”

As for me, I am conflicted. I think choice is a good thing for parents, and anything that has the potential to help kids succeed is worth considering. But I worry about kids being able to navigate multicultural environments later in life. Ultimately, my conflict comes from my own experiences.

At one time, I was an immigrant student in St. Paul. Coming from El Salvador, which is largely culturally and ethnically homogeneous, I found the diversity here a revelation. In particular, I remember Mai, my best friend in the second grade. For Christmas, Mai gave me an ornament she had made in the Hmong tradition. That small, cross-stitched bauble launched my fascination with other places and cultures. I was struck that there were places where people did things differently from our family.

Then, when I was in junior high, frizzy of hair and Coke-bottle of spectacles, I went to Un Primer Paso, an all-girl, Latina-based summer school program. There we met Latina role models and worked on increasing our cultural knowledge and self-esteem. In that environment, my intense shyness eased up a bit and I gained confidence. I felt freer, and I left knowing not so much what I wanted to do with my life, but that I wanted to do something. If nothing else, I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in the corner, quiet and passive for the rest of my life.

Today, I wonder what would have happened if Mai’s parents had decided to send her to a Hmong-focused school instead, and I wonder where I’d be if I had never gone to Un Primer Paso.

Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Tom Poe on 12/18/2007 - 08:18 pm.

    The greater Minneapolis area is now launching a wireless infrastructure. There are bugs, of course, but the folks behind the project envision something quite remarkable. Classes will spend more time online, interacting in structured videoconferences, experiencing a world, literally. One day, spending time with classmates in other countries, another day, producing news items to be shared with kids around the world, another day, receiving one-on-one instruction with experts in a wide range of professions. It won’t matter where the kids are. They’ll be exposed to a world of culture. If that’s what the parents want for their kids. Why segregate? Consider where these kids will be, if they don’t get that opportunity? Besides, it would cost a lot less than building brick and mortar magnet schools. Better we focus on bringing the magnet school experience to the kids. We have the technology. We should use it.
    Tom Poe, Charles City, Iowa

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/19/2007 - 11:54 am.

    Through my work, I have had the opportunity to spend extended periods of time in Asian “Pacific rim” countries; primarily Singapore and Taiwan.

    Singapore is a country made up of a truly eclectic mix of ethnicities. In Singapore, “diversity” is not something that is “celebrated” or “achieved”; it is simply a fact of life. Due to the staggering economic success of Singapore, people are drawn from China, Malaysia, Bali, Java, India, North Africa and many European countries.

    And they bring their kids, their cultures and their language barriers with them.

    Despite this, Singapore educated children rank #1 in science and mathematics rankings world-wide; how do they manage this feat?

    As any “Express” (an official designation for an education track) Singapore school child could explain, it’s not “rocket science”. The answer is that the Ministry of Education has made academic success the top priority of the schools. Yes, it really is that simple.

    But, where does diversity fit in? Where ever it will. Although kids speak a multiplicity of languages at home, lessons are taught in English at school.

    Ethnic and cultural differences are an every day experience outside the classrooms, but they are given short shrift (ignored is more precise) when it is time to learn the skills needed to succeed in today’s global economy.

    The coursework is rigorous; there are no “basket weaving 101” classes being offered to keep underperformers engaged at any cost. Kids that are unable to meet the academic rigors are not “thrown under the bus” however; they are directed towards technical or trade related educations.

    Children with severe disabilities have schools set aside for them that can meet their special needs. I think that the well intentioned effort to mainstream kids that are struggling with severe mental or physical disabilities has done them, our public school system and the mainstream student population a huge disservice…but that is for another discussion.

    I can tell you that an educator in Singapore would be shaking his or her head in bewilderment that this discussion of the importance of “diversity” is being seriously undertaken while our metro area graduation rates hover around 60%.

    We have allowed the de-evolution of our once proud public education system into something that makes academic success a by-product of it’s ability to provide upper-middle class jobs to trade labor unions and experimentation in leftist socio-economic indoctrination.

    Oh sure, administrators and teaching staff are pleased when the odd student scores high on an ACT test. But the fact of the matter is that even the “cream of the crop” more often shows up at college needing serious remedial coursework before undertaking college level material.

    My experience with Hmong people leaves me to conclude that perhaps it is their concern over the dismal level of importance given academic excellence in SPPS, more than any attempt to isolate their culture that is driving their efforts.

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