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It’s All About Education: Do We Really Value Diversity in Schools?

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

 

A couple of weeks ago, 700,000 people used the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed to show support for 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed. Ahmed was falsely arrested and suspended from his Texas high school for bringing in a homemade clock, which his teachers mistook for a bomb. Since then, Ahmed has received invitations to talk shows, companies like Google, and even the White House. 

But not everyone is ready to defend Ahmed. Breitbart News, a conservative opinion site, asserts that Ahmed’s sister was suspended 3 years ago for making an alleged bomb threat; both the Federalist and the National Review, two websites known for their conservative viewpoints, have published articles questioning the legitimacy of Ahmed’s homemade clock and his motives. Why is it so hard for some people to see a young Muslim boy as just that – a boy? 

The saddest thing about Ahmed’s story is that his is not an isolated incident. Recently, Boston’s NPR station WBUR published an article by Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed: Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance. Wertheimer refers to her conversations with numerous Muslim students around the country who have been bullied in school and have been the butt of jokes and ridicule because of their religion. 

For two centuries, America has been known as a melting pot, welcoming people from all different cultures and backgrounds – are we still? Karime Alvarado, a senior at Ahmed’s school, has become a social activist at the tender age of 16. She told Colorlines that she speaks out because “there is a small percentage of students in all schools that are misinformed and uneducated on topics such as racial profiling, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc.” 

Karime’s statement reminds us that religious intolerance isn’t the only kind of bigotry in our schools. New America reports that the young children of immigrants, who make up 25% of all students under the age of 8 in America, often face discrimination at school. Critical comments from peers or teachers, name-calling, narrowed learning opportunities – these are all common experiences for a quarter of our students. 

In Providence, our schools are extremely diverse: 64% of our public school students identify as Hispanic, 17% African American, 9% Caucasian, 5% Asian, 3% multiracial and 1% Native American. Although there is no data on religious diversity in the public schools, one would imagine that many different backgrounds and varying methods of worship abound. 

I asked my friend Wendy, who lives with her family in East Greenwich, RI, what it’s like to be one of the very few Muslim families in the community. She said that, although the 7th grade public school curriculum includes world religions and that the community has been very accepting of their family, there have been a couple of incidents that have given her pause. 

One of Wendy’s daughters greeted a Muslim friend with the phrase, “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is great” and is the beginning of the Islamic call to prayer. A classmate became very upset with her, saying, “How can you say that?! It means ‘Death to all Americans’!” Wendy’s daughter gently corrected him, and explained the true meaning. It must be frustrating to be the only representative of your religion, often called upon to refute misconceptions.

Wendy’s older daughter is in the process of deciding whether she would like to wear a hijab, or head scarf. She has begun experimenting by wearing a hijab to school for a week at a time – and she is very excited to plan her outfits to match. A comment by a well-meaning teacher helped Wendy to realize that most non-Muslims assume that a woman wearing a hijab is being forced to wear it by her family or her religious leaders. Instead, Wendy explained, the head scarf represents a covenant with God – and in America, women make a choice as to whether or not they wish to wear it. 

On the Teaching Tolerance website, one teacher commented that, "Schools are the one place where all of these different religions meet. It follows that religious diversity must be dealt with in school curriculum if we're going to learn to live together." Yet many teachers are uninformed about various religions themselves, and they feel ill-equipped to teach students about them. 

As a result, teachers often invite parents in to present to students in the class; Wendy was invited in to talk about their traditions, just as Jewish parents are sometimes invited in to share Hanukkah celebrations and Hindu parents are sometimes asked to explain Diwali. Involving parents in education is always a good practice, but there should be a more institutionalized way to teach about religious and cultural differences in all schools.  

If we truly value diversity – and frankly, this country (and this state!) was built on it – we must ensure that our schools teach respect and compassion. And we can start by modeling it ourselves. The next time you see someone in a head scarf, ask yourself if you are seeing the scarf or the person. And then smile and say hello. 

Lauri Lee is an independent consultant with over twenty years of experience in both public and private education, with learners from infants through adults. With experience in teaching, marketing, communications, social media, development, admissions, and technology, she is able to synthesize many of the issues facing our educational system today. She lives in Providence, RI with her family, a big dog, and a small cat. She blogs at http://www.AllAboutEducation.net and you can follow her on Twitter at @fridovichlee. 

 

Related Slideshow: RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education

On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.  

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Sasse

"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to  an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.

Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students.  This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."

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Sasse

"Revisit school governance and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the state, school districts , neighborhood schools, and school teachers and school administrators.  Develop and implement a system to hold schools responsible for student outcomes."

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Sasse

"Build a consensus and buy in of all stakeholders around  the education reform initiatives being advanced by the Board of Education."

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Metcalfe

"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."

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Metcalfe

"Expand opportunities and start earlier - we must ensure that all kids have access to a high performing public school of their choice, which includes full-day kindergarten."

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Metcalfe

"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."

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Cano-Morales

"Meet the academic potential of all students but especially with regards to urban schools students -- 3 out of 4 are Latinos in Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket." 

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Cano-Morales

"Connect through specific best practices the academic successes of our students to careers jobs. Investing in schools is economic development as a whole for Rhode Island. " 

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Cano-Morales

"Increase the access to -- and completion of -- higher education and post- secondary opportunities.  Poverty? Struggling families? Education and access to careers and competitive wages is the best antidote."

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Duffy

"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula.  With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not.  Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"

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Duffy

"Implementing the common core standards will provide continuity -- and comparison -- between states now.  With over 40 states involved, we're embarking a new set of standards here."

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Duffy

"Accountability and assessing student performance -- how that it's driven by the common core, we'll be able to compare the best districts in RI against the best districts in say MA.  That's the intent of the Common Core is a standardization of how we hold the system accountable."

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Cylke

"Issue one is quality.  Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code.  And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."

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Cylke

"Issue two is equality.  In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K.  In Pawtucket it's $12.9.  What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding.  A difference of $3000 per pupil?  We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case.  An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."

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Cylke

"Issue three is Infrastructure.  A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction.  If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained.  These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."

 
 

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