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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 5th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 35 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 35

Competency gap: Santa Maria High School tackles the chasm between community and school with cultural proficiency

BY CAMILLIA LANHAM

Test scores, grades, and all the rest of the numbers that make up a school’s academic success rubric often overshadow the human side of education—which are the relationships and ensuing collaboration between parents, the community, the faculty, staff, and the school district that enable a student to be successful.

Those relationships are strained at Santa Maria High School. The tension can be attributed to a variety of causes, which include several conflicts between the teachers’ association and a group of community members and parents. The issues stem from a desire for academic improvement, and the discussion so far has involved wanting change in student schedules and class offerings and having a more egalitarian process for decision-making that impacts students.

A big thing parents have asked for from the beginning is for the school to become more culturally sensitive when it works with both the students and the parents.

As the discussion drags out, both sides have become increasingly polarized, Santa Maria High Principal Joe Domingues said.

“It’s almost like the Democrats and Republicans,” he explained. “Both sides just dug in. That’s when students lose.”

To minimize the losses and hopefully tackle the divide between sides, Domingues and Assistant Principal Peter Flores are doing something they feel will also bring students increased academic success, and it has nothing to do with numbers. They’ve invited a small group of teachers, parents, community members, counselors, and administrative staff to participate in a series of workshops built around something called cultural proficiency.

“A lot of our parents don’t understand the American school system,” Domingues said. “There’s a conflict between the organizational culture [of our school] and the majority of our community.”

About 97 percent of Santa Maria High’s students are Latino. Domingues said many Latino parents want be involved in the school, but don’t feel welcome or comfortable in the school setting, either because of language-translation difficulties or by the way they feel they’re being treated. The goal of cultural proficiency is basically to try to see the world as others see it and live in it.

The big parent involvement push started with a desire to improve the school’s standardized test scores, which were consistently lower than other area high schools and caused the school to be placed in Program Improvement with the state. The school’s scores have improved significantly over the last three years, and this year students hit the administrative-issued challenge of breaking 700 points.

Domingues said parents want to continue seeing improvement like that, both on standardized tests and in the classroom. He added that research shows Latino students are more successful when their parents are involved in their school.

“When we don’t have the cultural lens on, we have a tendency to ask people to adjust to the organization,” assistant principal Flores said.

“The organization needs to understand those that it serves and meet the needs of those that it serves by opening up its perspective,” Domingues added.

The workshop group is in its initial stages and has met a couple of times since the beginning of the 2013-2014 school year. Workshops are being run by Randall and Delores Lindsey, authors of a “Cultural Proficiency: A Guide for School Leaders.”

On Oct. 21 and 22, the Lindseys met the Santa Maria group at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where they saw exhibits about the Holocaust as well as a presentation on landmark education cases. One of the cases, 1947’s Mendez versus Westminister, involved the segregation of Latinos and whites in Orange County schools.

“They came back changed,” Domingues said. “Because they changed the lens that they looked through.”

Donna Trombetta is in her sixth year with Santa Maria High as a school counselor. She said the workshops are a great opportunity for staff and parents to get together and learn how to better communicate in a positive way.

She said she grew up in a white middle-class family and hasn’t walked in the shoes of someone who’s picked up and moved his or her life to a completely different country, or someone who moves around for work like migrant workers do.

“More than anything, [the workshops have] schooled me in what they’ve lived, and when you hear someone else’s story in terms of their background, it can’t help but move you to be, just, more sensitive. You’re like, ‘Wow, that’s what you’ve been through?’ It’s just moving,” Trombetta said.

Issues like socioeconomic status and race are touchy, and in order for people to see that barriers do exist across races and economic status, the Lindseys teach that it’s important to see the world through the lens of another. But first, the Lindseys teach their students to see through their own lenses—to see where their inherent biases are, where they see the barriers in society, and also to admit that those biases and barriers exist in the first place.

“Those of us that attended the cultural proficiency workshop, it’s helping us to kind of take a step back and really listen to the other perspective, rather than say, ‘This is how I feel; this is what I want,’” Trombetta said. “I think it’s the first step in healing the relationship between our school and our parents and community members.”

Rafaela Moreno is also attending the workshops. She has a sophomore at Santa Maria High School. Moreno is also a parent representative on the Shared Decision Making Committee and an active community member when it comes to school issues.

Moreno said she’s a new person after the trip to the museum. She said that so far, she’s learned so much about differences she didn’t even realize existed.

“It made me aware and more sensitive to the diversity that we do have,” Moreno said. “It’s a human thing; it goes to the core of that spiritual part of us that we don’t nurture—that we all connect regardless of the differences we do see.”

Already she feels like she’s better able to interact, step back and listen, and hear from others.

“It’s an open door to communication,” she said.

Santa Maria High principal Domingues said that the strides the group is making represent momentum he doesn’t want to lose. Although they have meetings set up for later in November, he wants the group to meet sooner. Maybe now, it’s a small group of people. The hope is that eventually the culturally proficient way of seeing the world will spread to others.

“I am ultimately responsible as a school leader to make sure people see those blinders,” Domingues said. “And make people aware of the social injustices.”

 

Contact Staff Writer Camillia Lanham at clanham@santamariasun.com.