The Making of a Culturally Proficient Community


What's in a name?

This simple question became a powerful activity to open the 2010-11 school year with a conversation about our personal histories. In the Rowland Unified School District in Southern California, administrators and teacher leaders gathered for a workshop titled "Culturally Proficient Learning Communities: Changing the Conversation."

I realized my own personal experience of having a teacher misspell and mispronounce my name when I was in 1st grade still leaves me sensitive to the way we approach Latino students and other students of color.

Maria OttMaria Ott (left) is focusing on equitable learning opportunities for all students as superintendent of the Rowland Unified School District.

I will never forget the day I came home from school and shared the paper that had my name spelled out. My mother was surprised when I told her how my name was to be pronounced. Gutierrez became Gunzer, and when my mother said the spelling and pronunciation were wrong, I cried. How could my teacher be wrong?

Courageous Conversations
The simple activity of sharing how we acquired our names launched courageous conversations about expectations for students across the Rowland Unified School District. Our names open the chapter to a personal story, and this exploration helps us better understand our own histories in pursuit of building classroom and school cultures that promote excellence and respect for the stories of the children who bring their hopes and dreams to us each day.

How often are children's names mispronounced, or worse, changed to benefit someone who is not willing to make the effort to learn the correct pronunciation or spelling? How often do students have a first school experience like mine that is confusing and makes an early learner disengage from school?

Most public school districts have a mission statement that includes the traditional value for diversity. Diversity often has translated into celebration of special cultural days with ethnic programs and foods. Yet I question how much we actually "celebrate" diversity when opportunity and achievement gaps persist that threaten our ethnically, racially and linguistically different students the most.

Deeper Understanding
We have reorganized our learning in Rowland into a structure called school instructional leaders, school-based teams of administrators and teachers working together to penetrate the barrier of low expectations and to ensure students reach their potential.

Low expectations lead to low levels of instruction. The lack of rigor for underperforming students is troubling when rigor is what our underperforming students need most to accelerate their learning.

Our teachers in Rowland are focused on ways to ensure students have the opportunity to learn, including: (1) respect for the diversity of our students; (2) high expectations and academic rigor; and (3) meaningful, relevant and student-centered teaching and learning. This means courageous conversations must take place across our schools and translate into bold action on behalf of all our students.

I respect the willingness of our teachers to explore their own professional learning in search of deeper understanding of their students' needs and in pursuit of efficacious teaching practices. Seeking answers, teachers are exploring new strategies to engage students in meaningful learning experiences.

One of the English teachers at our continuation high school shared the work of a student who put the story of her name to poetry, in an activity titled Where I'm From, and captured her personal story on film. When the teacher shared the story with colleagues during one of our staff development days, the reaction was powerful. We were deeply touched by the student's creative and poetic rendition of her life, which launched a conversation about the importance of designing lessons that build upon the experiences of the learner.

A Partner's Expertise
We also viewed a speech from the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) website that moved everyone in the room. The website is full of resources worth sharing, including "The Danger of a Single Story" by Chimamanda Adichie, an award-winning Nigerian writer. The story taught us that when we define others with a single story, we deprive ourselves of knowing the richness of another's life and limit our expectations of what someone else brings to the learning situation.
Latino students are not unfortunate because their parents come to our country in search of a better life. Their individual journeys are worthy of respect, and their struggles lay the foundation for hard work and achievement in the classroom. How we view student potential is the foundation for creating a culturally proficient environment for teaching and learning.

Our quest in Rowland Unified, a district with 15,400 students (63 percent of them Latino), is to build cultural proficiency across the system to improve teaching and learning. This work is supported by a partnership with the Ball Foundation and the foundation's team of experts dedicated to improving literacy for all students. The Ball Foundation introduced us to Delores and Randall Lindsey, who have worked nationally and internationally, promoting cultural proficiency in school districts and other organizations. Their skill helped Rowland leaders design and implement the initial training, and they provided expert guidance that set the stage for success on our journey.

The Lindseys, authors of several books on cultural proficiency, served as anchors to guide us through the challenging conversations that lay ahead. Working with our Ball Foundation partner's expertise, the Lindseys provided guidance and wisdom as we increased our internal capacity to lead this work in the years ahead. By helping us understand our values and explore our behaviors, the Lindseys have guided our conversations about equitable learning outcomes for all our students.

Our Microcosm
Educators are inclined to say they hold high expectations for all students. Yet classrooms are not all the same. Classrooms that close the achievement gap provide equitable opportunities that immerse students in meaningful, engaging and challenging learning on a daily basis. These classrooms move the academic agenda with a sense of urgency and importance. Students sense intuitively their learning is additive, building on deep respect for who they are and what they bring from life's experiences.

Teaching in these settings is best described as well-designed, rigorous and set to the highest standards of performance. Students are required to put forth their best effort, and they are rewarded with encouragement and praise for their hard work. The caring and supportive nature of these teachers who hold the bar high also provides a safety net for learning and academic success.

Rowland Unified is a good school district that is stretching to be an outstanding district in which educators assume personal responsibility for the achievement of all students.

Rowland Unified schools are microcosms of a complex and changing world. Our work around cultural proficiency bridges expectation to outcomes. This work is challenging and requires a strong heart and firm backbone. It takes courage to confront our beliefs about children and even greater courage and strength to remove the assumptions and barriers that lead to low expectations.

Our ability to adapt will ensure we successfully reach our journey's end and realize our vision of becoming a culturally proficient community.

Maria Ott is superintendent of the Rowland Unified School District in Rowland Heights, Calif., and co-author of the forthcoming book A Culturally Proficient Society Begins in School: Leadership for Equity (Corwin Press). E-mail: