Another approach to equity in public schools

Posted: Sunday, February 27, 2000

Sharing stories of bias and feelings of exclusion could be a way for the Juneau School District to start addressing the longstanding gap between Native and white academic achievement, some educators believe.

A group of principals, teachers and school district administrators met this week to talk about prejudice. A similar forum, attracting some parents, was sponsored by the Juneau Native Education Commission.

Organizers hope it will lead to regular sessions of a Juneau equity forum.

There are few opportunities to talk about bias, said Fred Hiltner, a Harborview Elementary teacher.

``If we don't listen to people's personal stories, it will be intellectualizing, which doesn't work,'' he said.

``We can read a lot of statistics, and it's important to look at the data,'' said Nancy Terman of a California-based institute on math and equity. ``But what really makes it real, makes it hit home, is hearing someone's story. . . . That's how we learn what it's like for people who are not like us.''

The equity issue was raised because a smaller percentage of Natives than whites do well on school district and national assessments. Students from families with limited English proficiency or who are poor also have a greater chance of doing poorly on tests.

Plenty of Natives and other minorities do well in school, and educators say the differences in assessment scores don't reflect a difference in ability. As a result, educators say, there must be another reason why Natives are more likely to struggle in school than whites.

Parent Francine Eddy Jones said the schools should use incidents of racism as an opportunity to talk about it in the classroom, rather than just expelling students.

``Our system for some reason chooses not to want to work it through with our kids,'' she said.

At the meetings, Natives spoke of painful memories of children being taken to boarding schools, and of generations that were taught to feel ashamed of their language and culture.

Andrew Hope, a parent, said some Natives have accepted the idea that indigenous values are worthless. In the past, they even tried to obstruct efforts to add Tlingit language and culture to the curriculum, he said.

``I think the Native community is finally getting to the point where they can deal with this language shift that has been going on in the last 100 years and just the general impression of Native values and culture,'' Hope said.

It's difficult for Natives, who make up about 20 percent of Juneau students, to feel ownership of the schools, Hope said.

Schools reflect white, middle-class culture, said Terman of the equity institute. Schools transmit messages to minority students that they're not intelligent and don't fit in, she said.

Mathematics has a way of making people feel stupid, too, Terman said.

The Equity in Mathematics Education Leadership Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara, which ran the meetings Wednesday, sees mathematics as a ``gatekeeper'' in the schools.

Math filters out a lot of students who don't do well and they often don't go on to college or are limited in their careers.

The math institute emphasizes teaching the subject in a variety of ways, so more students are included in learning. Terman said it's a model of greater accessibility in general.

``Equity doesn't mean everyone gets the same thing. It means everyone gets what they need to be successful,'' said Harborview teacher Hiltner.

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