The state's second-largest district sends its employees through training to make them more 'culturally proficient.'
St. Paul Public Schools requires all 6,500 employees -- from secretaries to teachers and principals -- to take up to 12 hours of "cultural proficiency" training as part of its effort to raise student achievement by an unprecedented 10 percentage points this year.
The program will take two years for the district to complete and cost $1.4 million, which the district will pay with federal stimulus funds, says Yusef Mgeni, director of the district's office of educational equity. It will have an online tool kit to help participants.
The 38,000 students in St. Paul's public schools, the state's second-largest district, are a stew of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds who speak 70 languages and 122 dialects, Mgeni says. They are 75 percent students of color; conversely, the district's teaching staff is 80 percent white.
The district wants to close a wide gap in achievement between its white students and its students of color.
"If we had an inclusive learning environment, we wouldn't have an achievement gap," Mgeni said. Moreover, if the program is successful, it also could help lower the disparity in student suspensions and the dropout rate between whites and students of color, he says.
Math may be math to the entire world, but Mgeni says there's ample evidence that students will learn math better from teachers who understand that cultural differences play a role in self-awareness, communication and, ultimately, student achievement.
But Mgeni is careful not to lay blame on race matters, and he says the program will differ widely from the commonplace diversity training many companies require of employees.
The difference, Mgeni says, is that St. Paul's program isn't designed to teach people object lessons about other cultures. It seeks, rather, to school them in how to identify their own culture in others.
"It's not about how they dress or [eat] tamales," says Sara Taylor, president of deepSEE Consulting, the Oakdale consulting firm that will conduct the training. "It's how we talk about things, see things and behave."
Their program comprises four three-hour sessions. But before they begin, employees must take the Intercultural Development Inventory, which indicates people's state of cultural proficiency, where it falls along a continuum that ranges from "denial" to "integration."
It may sound touchy-feely, but education experts say St. Paul is headed in the right direction with the program.
"Teaching is a relationship issue," said Kikanza Nuri Robins, a California-based consultant and author of "Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders."
"When people are culturally proficient, they can engage with people who are different from them," Robins says. "They recognize that culture is a predominant force. They recognize that any environment will be affected by culture. So they can make adaptations and adjustments to it."
Cultural proficiency training is so important to the district that its leaders won't allow the media in to watch sessions for fear it could stifle the candid conversations that foster learning.
While St. Paul is diving headlong into cultural proficiency, it's not the first east side district to get this sort of help. Taylor's firm also has worked for Crosswinds Middle School in Woodbury, part of the East Metro Integration District.
"We have been doing training like that since the school started," says Anne Anderson, Crosswinds principal. The district, which has two schools, has a mission of providing a quality education to students of diverse backgrounds.
"There is a general understanding across the education community that (cultural proficiency) is a part of teaching now," she said.
Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287