District 16 cultural series embraces diversity

Staff members and administrators at Spring Lake Park District 16 are now more aware of students’ varied backgrounds thanks to a new cultural proficiency series.

Carolyne Zieske, coordinator of equity, English language learners and federal funds. File photo
Carolyne Zieske, coordinator of equity, English language learners and federal funds. File photo

Similar to other Twin Cities school districts, District 16 is undergoing a change in demographics and an increase in diversity. In answer to the changing face of the district, District 16 is seeking to implement instructional change and to better provide equity for its students.

The cultural series continues the district’s aim of being more inclusive and welcoming to all community members.

“We’re looking at how we can better engage kids to be enthusiastic learners,” said Carolyne Zieske, District 16’s coordinator of equity, English language learners and federal funds.

District 16’s classrooms, for instance, now check out multi-cultural learning trunks from the St. Paul Public Schools.

The trunks hold toys and books, a variety of items representing different cultures. An African music trunk has a double-headed clapper drum, bamboo shakers and a talking drum and sticks, for example. Or a Native American trunk could be filled with games, clothing and more.

Forty-three languages

A total of 43 languages are spoken by District 16 students and their families.

These graphics compare Spring Lake Park District 16 and statewide student population totals by ethniciy. Source: Minnesota Department of Education
These graphics compare Spring Lake Park District 16 and statewide student population totals by ethniciy. Source: Minnesota Department of Education

Fifteen years ago, 2 percent of the district’s students spoke a language other than English. In the 2010-11 school year, 13 percent spoke a language other than English.

English is the most spoken language followed by Spanish, Vietnamese and Hmong. The remainder of languages comprise less than 1 percent, Zieske said.

District 16 now serves about 663 English language learners, according to Zieske, with a total K-12 enrollment of nearly 5,100 students. From 2001-2011, District 16’s enrollment increased by 1,000 students.

Eleven years ago, 12 percent of its enrollment were students of color. In 2011 that number had grown to 32 percent.

In the same time frame, 11 years ago 19 percent of students in the district received free and/or reduced lunch. Last year 35 percent received free and/or reduced lunch, according to the district.

In a further student demographic breakdown, in 2011 a total of 65 or 1.3 percent of students in the SLP district were American Indian; 18,486 or 2.2 percent of the state’s students were American Indian. Last year, 477 or 9.7 percent Asian students were enrolled in the district, compared with the state’s number of 54,559 or 6.5 percent. A total of 443 Hispanic students or 9 percent were enrolled, compared with the state’s 58,091 or 6.9 percent, while black students comprised 499 students or 10.1 percent of Spring Lake Park’s enrollment, compared with 83,779 black students or 10.0 percent of the state’s student enrollment.

A majority of students last year at Spring Lake Park were white, 3,438 or 69.8 percent. Statewide, 622,725 students or 74.3 percent of the students were white, according to the Minnesota Department of Education website.

For teacher demographics, District 16’s 2011-12 full-time equivalent (FTE) positions break down to: white 333.7; black, 3.76; Hispanic, 2; Asian, 1; unknown, 0.46; and American Indian, 0.

The series

Starting in December a wide variety of District 16 staff members, including teachers, administrators, community education and clerical staff, have been participating in the free, four-part cultural series. Community members have also attended the series meetings about once a month at the District Services Center.

Session titles were: Introduction to Latino Culture, Introduction to Somali Culture, Introduction to Hmong Culture and Refugee and Immigrants.

Presenters were from the Neighborhood House of St. Paul. NH was founded in 1897 by the women of Mount Zion Temple members in an effort to assist Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing their homeland because of discrimination, according to the NH website.

The NH continues to offer workshops to bridge cultural divides and to build mutual beneficial and respectful relations among people.

“The partnership with The Neighborhood House brought some wonderful learning for staff from throughout the district about our changing community and student population,” said District 16 Superintendent Jeff Ronneberg.

Earlier this week, District 16 participants wrapped up the cultural series with a five- to 10-minute presentation on how they have applied their new learning into their professional lives.

Eye-opening session

Angela VanHee, assistant principal at Spring Lake Park High School, attended the cultural session on Refugees and Immigrants: A Provider’s Perspective.

The class was eye-opening for her.

Among the many things she learned, one of the most astounding was that although refugee camps receive aid in the form of food, rice for example, the refugees are not able to immediately access the food. Sometimes it takes two to three days “because the lines are so long and the camps are so vast,” VanHee said in an interview. “They have to walk miles to receive that aid.”

The lack of food also causes nutrient deficiencies, which affects child development, she said.

Attending the class has given VanHee more insight into how to better connect with Somali parents to ensure a supportive education for their children.

She has learned to be patient when it comes to a family getting back to her.

In many cases, the community makes the decisions, not the individual, which takes time, VanHee said. Education is of prime importance to them, she said.

Jennifer Weier, speech/language pathologist at Northpoint, attended all four classes in the cultural series.

As the district’s culture becomes more diverse, the series has helped her both professionally and personally, she said.

Particularly, Weier has learned how to better interact with families of diverse backgrounds.

“I’m more aware of social rules and expectations from their point of view,” she said.

Cultural traditions

Zieske noted some of the following cultural traditions shared in the sessions:

• Latino: When it comes to babies, the culture encourages touch, to make a sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead for good luck.

• Somali: They don’t date. Rather, they chit-chat. In marriage, the wife keeps her father’s name (what would be her maiden name) and the children take her husband’s name to keep track of family lineage.

• Hmong: The concept of higher education does not exist in Laos, “so the concept in the United States is very fascinating to them,” Zieske said. In their country, they make story cloths, detailing their family histories on cloth. Girls are taught cross-stitching at a young age.

District 16’s total cost for the cultural series, attended by about 25 to 30 people per session, was $2,060 (for instructor fees). The fees were funded from East Metro Integration District funds. District 16 is one of 10 district EMID members, including St. Paul Public Schools and nine suburban school districts in the eastern Twin Cities area.

Zieske said District 16 is striving to bring equity to the district, ranging from the school lessons taught to students to the workers serving food in the cafeteria – “to infuse it throughout the whole district. That is our goal,” she said.

The district continues to examine ways to bring equity and opportunity to the district and community members.

“Our community is growing more and more diverse, and our staff needs to be culturally proficient, embracing the varied backgrounds and experiences that our students and families bring to our schools,” Ronneberg said.

“Really, we want to be ensure that each and every one of our students is valued and feels a sense of belonging when they enter the doors of our schools.”

District 16 serves students in Spring Lake Park, Blaine and Fridley. Fifty percent of the students are from Blaine, 30 percent are from SLP and 20 percent are from Fridley.

Elyse Kaner is at [email protected]