Teachers facing achievement gap try cross-race connections

Culturally responsive teaching
Teachers taking part in a culturally responsive teaching program offered through St. Mary's University work in pairs to talk about their goals and how their coursework will be incorporated into their classrooms Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Eagan. The teachers are learning to see the world through their students' eyes in hopes of chipping away at the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

All the bleak statistics about Minnesota's achievement gap became personal to fifth-grade teacher Jen Engel, when she realized that gap was playing out in her own classroom.

"It stares you right in the face. It's real."

Engel teaches at Echo Park Elementary School in Burnsville, where about half of the students are racial minorities, many of them struggling academically. The 43-year-old, who is white, has heard about the factors that can contribute to the racial achievement gap, including poverty, unstable living conditions and troubled families.

But she says those are no excuses for educators.

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So Engel is one of several teachers who are learning how to be what educators describe as "culturally responsive" to her students as part of a Twin Cities program offered by St. Mary's University of Minnesota, whose main campuses are in Winona and Minneapolis.

"The outside factors are not within my control," Engel said. "When these kids come to school, I see where their strengths are and where the gaps are. It's my job at the end of the day to fill those gaps."

Minnesota has some of the worst academic achievement gaps in the nation between white kids and students of color. For example, Minnesota has the nation's worst on-time graduation rates among Latinos and American Indians and is among the worst for black and Asian students.

Culturally responsive teaching
Teacher Stephanie Reid, foreground, shares how she plans to put into practice the things she's learning during a culturally responsive teaching program Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013. The class, offered through St. Mary's University, is designed to help teachers close the achievement gap between white students and students of color.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

The St. Mary's program is part of an effort among some teachers to make their classes more culturally relevant to their students. It requires the teachers -- most of whom are white women -- to find new ways to connect to struggling kids.

St. Mary's instructor Marceline DuBose encourages her students to shake up their traditional teaching styles. She said music and movement can help capture students who learn differently.

The education system is already working best for white, middle-class kids, particularly female students, so it's no surprise that many teachers share those traits, DuBose said. The state Department of Education estimates that less than 4 percent of Minnesota teachers are people of color. Yet more than a quarter of Minnesota's students are nonwhite.

Sometimes, that disconnect can result in a not-so-subtle bias. DuBose, a former social studies teacher, said she had former colleagues who gave up on poor or nonwhite students. She recalls hearing them bemoan that classrooms aren't what they used to be.

"They were white teachers and had been teaching for a number of years, and they would attach directly 'the way it used to be' with the idea that they had to alter their rigor and expectations, because they just weren't going to get from the students what they used to get," DuBose said.

Those lowered expectations can play out even for students of color whose families are well-off.

Luz Maria Frias is a Latina mother of two, married to an African-American man. Both are attorneys. Frias remembers confronting her daughter's elementary school teacher after learning he had not selected her for a gifted program. She came to school armed with standardized test scores showing her daughter scored in the nation's top percentiles, she said.

"He admitted he was very familiar with her academic achievements, and that she was a gifted child. And when I asked why he had excluded her from the gifted program, he said he had forgotten."

Note: MDE collected the teacher data through a self-reported system. Because the reporting is not mandated, there may be some margin for error.

Frias then asked him how many kids in the gifted program were girls or kids of color. The teacher acknowledged that there were none.

"It was a tough conversation," Frias said. "His first reaction was, 'Are you calling me a sexist?' And I said to him, 'You'd be really lucky if I stopped there.'" Frias, now a vice president with the Minneapolis Foundation, was able to persuade the teacher to include her daughter in the program. But she says not every parent is savvy enough to push for these kinds of opportunities for their kids.

Supporters of culturally relevant teaching say it's not just about believing in your students. It's about developing deeper relationships with them and not shying away from the prickly subject of race.

Tracine Asberry, an African-American school board member and a former teacher in Minneapolis, says it's natural to teach who you are. But if you come from a privileged background and don't believe in the struggles faced by many people of color, your opinions can alienate a lot of kids.

"As teachers, teaching students who have different realities, we have to be aware of those things. We can't just be aware of them. We have to be comfortable so that we can have the conversation, and then encourage our students to feel comfortable to have those conversations in our classroom."

Asberry believes one way to close the achievement gap is to close the teacher gap. For some students of color, she says, the key might be as simple as making sure the person leading the classroom looks like them.

To learn more about St. Mary's program go here.