Schools embrace diversity

South suburban spotlight

People shouldn’t be afraid to talk about race, says Bea Young, founder of Kaleidoscope Group, a Chicago-based firm that specializes in helping organizations assess and improve their cultural competency.

It’s particularly true for schools as the communities they serve become more diverse, she says.

“We have to break the silence. We need to get people talking and being open. Once we do this, all kinds of magic can happen,” she says.

While Young has worked with many businesses to get that dialogue started, schools have become a big part of what she does. She also created a course for the Illinois Association of School Boards focused on diversity and inclusion.

A diverse school community requires a diverse staff, from educators and administrators to secretaries and custodians, to ensure that all the students feel truly a part of the school rather than an outsider, she says.

Plainfield is one area that has experienced fast growth and change in its demographics. John Harper, superintendent of schools for Plainfield School District 202, says that in 1990, 90 percent of the students were white. Today, 60 percent are white, 20 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are black, with other ethnicities making up the rest, he says.

“The growth brought about significant changes. We knew that we could not continue business as usual,” he says.

He brought in Young to help.

“What we wanted was a deeper understanding of the lives and mindsets of our students and of our parents, we wanted to make sure that our curricular and our extra-curricular programs were attracting kids from all cultures. And, if they weren’t we wanted to know why and what we could do about it,” he says.

The results and suggestions presented to District 202 this year showed that overall the school district was doing a good job making its students feel welcome and accepted. However, some challenges emerged, including issues of discipline and the fear of the perception of racism. The audits also found a need for more African-American and Latino teachers.

Young suggested the district create a Diversity Inclusion Advisory Council made up of students, faculty and parents and create district level liaisons to the African-American and Latino communities.

Harper says District 202 is developing a one-year and three-year plan. Celebrating and embracing diversity in the student body will always be a part of the goal, he says.

Young is currently working with Lockport District 206 and Oswego District 308 as well as many local municipalities.

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