An Implementation Template for Cultural Proficiency
By Jen Thomas
April 2018, Volume 41, Issue 8
How many times have you picked up a book, hoping that it would have answers to some of the questions that keep you up at night, only to finish it disappointed because the answers you sought were not within the covers of the book? As a principal of a diverse elementary school that has been finding some small success in closing opportunity and achievement gaps in our school community, I’ve been searching for a book that provides practical steps we can take on our journey to providing all students with an inclusive and equitable education. Opening Doors: An Implementation Template for Cultural Proficiency (Corwin, 2016) is a book that did not disappoint, as it provided me with a variety of tools and resources that I have been able to use in my school immediately.
In this book, the authors, Trudy T. Arriaga and Randall B. Lindsey, provide a road map to cultural proficiency in a school/district that begins with focusing on educators as learners. This road map is based on the story of the Ventura Unified School District (VUSD), the district that Arriaga led for 14 years, and informed by the work of Lindsey, the author of a series of books focused on developing cultural proficiency in schools. As the authors explain, “Culturally proficient learning is distinguished from other diversity and equity approaches in that it is anchored in the belief that a person must clearly understand one’s own assumptions, beliefs, and values about people and cultures different from one’s self in order to be effective in cross-cultural settings.”
The first two chapters of the book provide background and context for the remaining three chapters in the book, chapters in which the series of activities used in VUSD are explained in depth. Each chapter includes a behind the scenes analysis from Arriaga called “From My Superintendent’s Journal.” Additionally, the chapters include space and prompts to support personal reflection by the reader, as well as engage in a Dialogic Professional Learning Activity or reflect about school and district practices. For those school leaders who are interested in VUSD’s results after undertaking this journey to cultural proficiency, the epilogue contains data charts and tables showing the progress being made in the district as it relates to suspension, expulsion, dropout, language redesignation, language proficiency, language arts, and math. There are also resource sections in the book that include a book study guide, the VUSD template implementation journey, and additional information about the cultural proficiency implementation model.
One of the first activities that VUSD undertook was examining district and school language, policies, and practices to determine if they aligned to their stated vision, mission, and values. In other words, they assessed whether their behaviors and responses open doors to student success or act as barriers, closing doors on students and their families. Put another way, VUSD leaders asked themselves a difficult question, “Are we who we say we are?” The district leadership also focused on continually asking questions that pushed schools to examine factors that were opening and closing doors to students’ access and achievement. Examples of such questions include:
- What is it that we can do that embraces students’ cultures?
- What data do we need to collect to determine if we are living our mission?
- What programs are in place that authentically serve all students?
- What do data show about which programs (e.g., special education, Gifted and Talented Education, electives, extracurricular, visual and performing art) serve demographic groups?
Knowing which questions to ask and then understanding the answers to these questions is not a quick or easy process. And the authors acknowledge that becoming culturally proficient, whether individually, as a school, and/or as a district is a journey and takes time. For those who believe that cultural proficiency can be achieved by attending a single professional development session, this is an important book to read because it will help to unpack ways of thinking and acting at the individual, school, and district level that have closed doors and created disparities for kids and their families.
As someone who believes that it is my responsibility to change the current system of education so that it is equitable for all students, this book gave me specific, concrete action steps I can take in my own school and district to make them more inclusive places for students and families. As the authors state, “This journey [to cultural proficiency] bypasses the blame game and focused on the many skills effective educators, and our institutions, bring to bear on student access and achievement.” In other words, the activities and resources in this book can help us become the educators that our kids need and deserve us to be.
Jen Thomas is a principal at Hearst Elementary in Washington, D.C.
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