Step forward/step back activity illustrates marginalization

One way suburban school districts are trying to bridge the gap between minority students and teachers is through “cultural competency” training.

Students can read a lot from a teacher’s body language that either helps them open up or shut down entirely, said Ron Raglin, Elgin Area School District U-46 chief of equity and social justice. His job is to prepare employees to serve the district’s diverse population.

“We may not be sending (signals) off intentionally,” he said. “We may have just reacted to something.”

In January, the district conducted equity training for 115 administrators, school board members, cabinet members, directors and coordinators, to help them assess how they view students and how that connects to student achievement, Raglin said.

In one exercise, participants were asked to line up and answer a series of questions, such as whether they had ever been denied a bank loan or had been stopped by police, or if someone clutches a purse tighter upon seeing them on the sidewalk. Based on their individual responses, each employee either moved a step back or a step forward.

“As an African-American male, I usually wind up in the back (of the room),” Raglin said. “All the people of color were down at one end, and everybody else was down at the other end. Our experiences are vastly different.”

Raglin said when minorities share their experiences about feeling marginalized, it makes others uncomfortable.

“Race privilege and student achievement, period, is a touchy subject for people,” he said. “Some people say, ‘I’m color blind. I don’t see color.’ That’s a red flag” that shows a lack of awareness, he said.

Raglin said how to bridge that gap is the daunting question.

The training was repeated with 400 classroom teachers. The goal is educating every district employee on diversity awareness and understanding.

Surveying students to get feedback on how the district handles diversity is the next step, Raglin added.

“Building relationships, rapport with students matters,” he said. “If we are going to get at cultural competency, equity, we have to look at that data ... and what opportunities do all students have.”

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