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Feature                                                      Pages 23-24

 

Diversity:
The Changing Complexion Inside Our Schools and the Implications for Educators

BY MARCUS J. NEWSOME

School districts in the United States increasingly are becoming melting pots of global cultures. Our students come in all colors, shapes and sizes with different knowledge, skill sets and learning styles.

To reach and engage them, educators must rely on relevant and engaging lessons using cutting-edge technology and strategies that keep our students motivated. We must embrace the beauty and opportunities diversity offers with optimism, enthusiasm and a “can do attitude.”

As an educator with three decades of experience in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia schools, I have seen the successes and failures of public education. In my last 20 years as an administrator and superintendent in two of Virginia’s largest school districts (one urban, the other suburban), I have learned that our challenges are unique yet similar in many ways.

A Prevalent Narrative

Chesterfield County Public Schools, located just outside the state capital of Richmond, Va., is like many school districts across the country in this respect: We are experiencing notable changes in our demographics. Nearly 45 percent of the 60,000 students we serve today are children of color, and more than 20,000 of our students qualify for the free or reduced-price meals offered to families who fall at or below the federal poverty level. Compare this to 15 years ago when our school system’s enrollment included approximately 30 percent students of color, and fewer than 10,000 students were economically disadvantaged.

One prevalent national narrative is that minority-majority schools and school divisions tend not to perform as well academically as those in which the majority of students are white. Schools that are majority black and Hispanic are commonly located in areas that are relatively more impoverished and have higher crime rates. Those schools also tend to have less-qualified teachers, lower expectations for student achievement and more student discipline issues.

It’s through this lens that diversity has been viewed in a negative light. In Chesterfield County, we’ve taken a different look with pro-active measures to promote cultural competency among staff and equity for every student. Each year, approximately 4,300 kindergarten students enter our schools for the first time. This year, we asked ourselves: What will the world look like when they graduate as members of the Class of 2027? How do we prepare them to solve complex problems, thrive and adapt in a rapidly changing world?

Effecting change to bring about those outcomes begins with strategic and innovative planning. We started our process several years ago with a series of community forums led by futurists, entrepreneurs, scientists and business leaders. Author Gary Marx talked to us about key trends destined to reshape the world. He highlighted changes that will influence policy and opportunities for improving academic achievement for all students. I can recall vividly his remarks about the astonishing shift in population demographics and its role in lifelong learning. Other speakers included a NASA astronaut/engineer on the importance of STEM, and a pair of 30-something millionaires on the role of entrepreneurism.

 Newsome feature
 Marcus Newsome, superintendent in Chesterfield County, Va., says outsiders tend to prejudge the quality of public schools based on their degree of diversity.
A Responsive System

So what did we learn? When our students graduate and enter the workforce, they are expected to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. They should be collaborative and ethical, technology savvy and innovative, and have strong communication skills. Our students told us they wanted anywhere/anytime learning opportunities, constant innovation, socially networked environments, personalized learning, freedom of choice and clear guidelines.

As a result of the input, we designed an innovation plan focused on three big ideas: (1) blended learning, the best of face-to-face instruction mixed with the latest digital technology; (2) project-based learning to engage students in real-world problem solving; and (3) service learning to make meaningful connections for students with their community.

In short, we wanted to make sure our students are able to do more than just shade the correct bubble on a standardized test. We wanted to ensure they have the 21st-century skills to excel after high school graduation.

Our training includes work with Cultural Conversations, developed by members of our professional development department — designed to help participants learn about themselves, make connections with people from different backgrounds, recognize injustice and how to respond, and integrate these lessons immediately into their workplace. The training includes strategies and support for responding to challenges associated with on-time graduation rates and discipline for minority students, those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged and students with disabilities.

Our cultural competency initiatives are inclusive of topics such as ethnicity, gender, religion, socioeconomics and disability. However, there is no more difficult conversation in America today than race. Notwithstanding, we embrace these courageous conversations and thought-provoking activities that spark discussions, help participants openly acknowledge their bias, promote commonalities and change instructional practices in the classroom.

Blending Factors

As we move further into the 21st century, I believe the great equalizer in public education will be blending effective uses of technology with the best of face-to-face instruction. Given the increasing affordability of technology tools on the market today, educators have the potential to provide every child with a personalized education.

Emerging research on best practices in blended education, digital textbooks and free open source apps designed specifically for the classroom guided our district’s efforts. We built a robust technology infrastructure; conducted an exhaustive literature review; visited school districts that had successfully implemented 1:1 technology initiatives; offered two years of professional development for our employees; and piloted six mobile devices in our district. After a tremendous investment on the front end, we recently began deployment of what will eventually be 32,000 Chromebooks into our middle and high schools — without any additional funding for the school district.

Despite numerous financial, political and cultural barriers, we are moving forward with our districtwide implementation of anytime, anywhere learning. We are changing the way we teach and learn one student at a time with little regard for their ZIP code, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or any other label society has used to distinguish them.

Marcus Newsome is superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools in Chesterfield, Va. E-mail: mj_newsome@ccps.net. Twitter: @ccpssuper 

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