Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


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.

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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?”

Article continues after advertisement

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.

Article continues after advertisement

“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.