U-46 school board members debate acknowledging students' racial identity

Updated 2/28/2017 4:52 PM

Is acknowledging students' racial identity important for their academic success?

That question sparked a debate among Elgin Area School District U-46 school board members during a discussion about providing cultural sensitivity training for teachers in the district's AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program.

School board member Jeanette Ward said the AVID Regional Path Training -- approved by a 4-2 vote Monday -- includes controversial sessions focused on "culturally relevant teaching" for students and educators.

The session for educators is designed to "address issues of race, class, gender, sexual orientation and accountability through a growth mindset. The strand will provide a framework of effective methodologies that validate the culture of all students in the classroom and on the campus." Ward said, quoting the training description, which she termed "vague leftist-speak."

A students' training session promises engagement in "critical conversations around race, gender, class, sexual orientation and other culturally relevant topics," she added.

Ward said AVID, by definition, is supposed to be focused on individuals, not groups.

"This is the dividing of people by different groups and focusing on what divides us instead of what unites us," Ward said. "Conversations about race, gender, class and sexual orientation are best had in the home, with parents present. Conversations about race, gender, class and sexual orientation are not relevant to encouraging students to apply and succeed in college, unless they are majoring in community organizing."

School board member Susan Kerr said the district's teaching staff is mostly white, while a majority of students are children of color. She added that the focus of the training is "to try to reach those kids effectively and to make them successful" in college and careers.

School board member Traci O'Neal Ellis said Ward's stance tells black, Hispanic, Native American, and gay and lesbian children that they don't matter. Students should not be asked to strip their cultural identity and leave it at home.

"It is important to teach our teachers how to value and ... create an inclusive classroom. ... You can't include that which you don't recognize, that which you don't value," Ellis said. "Being culturally relevant means acknowledging and caring that I have a different culture than you do. And to tell me to leave my culture at home and that it is not worthy of being addressed in our classroom is offensive and ignorant. It is not about marginalizing any student. We need to acknowledge that students come to us with different cultural needs."

Ellis said she has experienced what it feels like sitting through classes where nothing in the curriculum affirms her black identity.

"Yet, when white children come into this district, their very identity, their existence, their humanity is affirmed every single day, and no one has to say a word," she added. "When the curricula is not inclusive, when the classroom is not inclusive, not by malicious intent, but when a teacher isn't even aware of what's necessary to include children, we are doing a disservice. ... We are further erasing students and who they are, and it sends a message that they are less than."

Board member Veronica Noland said the one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach does not work for all students. She said in her experience the cultural norm can discourage minority students from even contemplating certain career paths or goals. Having AVID teachers who are trained to work with those students and their families empowers them to reach for higher goals, she added.

"It is imperative that we have this kind of professional development for our staff, our teachers so that they then can do their jobs in creating the environment that these students need in order to achieve their maximum potential," she said.

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