Schools reflect student diversity

Look in a mirror. You'll see your reflection. Then look out a window. You will see part of the world.

Jonathan Zur, president of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities (VCIC) often uses a mirror-window activity to help teach Henrico County educators how to be more inclusive across race, gender and class.

The activity helps educators analyze how students see themselves, how students see the world, and how those two worlds intersect in their schools.

Some students see their images reflected in history books in school, on bulletin boards and in student leadership roles. Others see themselves reflected only in token ways. In the latter cases, VCIC trainers show teachers ways to address the disparities.

"We've seen some schools be able to be effective through using that [mirror-window] framework and broader workshops ... to change some of the policies and practices throughout their buildings," Zur said.

VCIC and Henrico County schools have worked together for about eight years.The training is part of the district's efforts to examine the culture at each school and to ensure that all students feel welcome and included, said Chris Corallo, the district's executive director of organizational development, quality and innovation.

Making each student feel valued regardless of race or ethnic background has become more important as the racial demographics of Henrico County schools have changed in the last few years.

In the 2004-2005 school year, 53.2 percent of the district's student population was white and 46.7 percent was non-white, according to statistics provided by the district. In the 2011-2012 school year, 45 percent are white and 55 percent are non-white, with the largest increases in growth being among Asian and Hispanic students.

As minority student populations increase, school officials have developed programs that focus on equity across race, class, and ability status.

For instance, middle schools participate in VCIC's annual Prejudice Awareness Summit. Teams of eight students from schools spend a day together and then develop plans about how to share the message of inclusion and respect with their peers.

Linda Thompson, project director for the district's Learning Leaders grant, works closely with VCIC on the summit and other projects.

"We have greatly appreciated our work with the [VCIC] and believe that their voices in training have been instrumental in helping us … have honest conversations about diversity and cultural differences in our schools," Thompson said.

School leaders also develop their own activities to create an inclusive culture. For instance last month, Ward Elementary School held International Day for its approximately 500 students and their parents. Principal David Burgess said the event, which featured culture and food from a variety of countries, was to celebrate the schools's diverse population.

However, as the student population changes in Henrico County, officials are tracking an achievement gap.

White students and Asian students perform at higher levels on most academic measures than do African American students, Hispanic students, and students with disabilities, according to the Henrico County school's website.

Similar gaps are occurring in other school districts in Virginia and elsewhere.

Zur said the training that VCIC has done with Henrico educators can be helpful as the district works to close the gap.

"If students feel a sense of belonging in their school, they are more likely to show up, they are more likely to do their homework, they are more likely to raise their hands, they are more likely to care about the quality of their work," Zur said. "So this is not just a touchy-feely, squishy area of work. This is about a school's success."

Corallo said that although the district has been working to close the achievement gap, more work is needed.

The community helped the district identify what Corallo called "barriers to progress." Earlier this month, the district met with community representatives to discuss those barriers and identify priorities. Those priorities will be used to help the district develop the next steps for continuing to close the gap.

Meanwhile, Zur and the VCIC will keep working with Henrico teachers to help them to better connect with and to understand their increasingly diverse students and their parents.

Zur said he expects ongoing conversations about inclusion in area schools but he anticipates the focus of those conversations to change over time.

"As our immigrant population grows in Central Virginia that adds an opportunity for some new conversation and new learning," he said. "The links between race and class and ability grouping are something our schools really need to look at… so there are emergent conversations that [are needed and] that will look different five, ten, fifteen years from now."

This story is part of the Virginia Tapestry series, produced by In Your Shoes Media.
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