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Three Steps for Culturally Competent Education Outside the Classroom (Opinion)

Search online for “culturally competent education” and you’ll find a wealth of curricula, reading lists, and professional development resources designed for teachers. However, you’ll have a far more difficult time finding guidance for the noninstructional staff in our nation’s schools to create a culture of anti-racism.

As a Black educator and former elementary school teacher, I certainly know how important it is that the curriculum accurately reflects the histories and experiences of Black and brown students. As the current director of operations of a charter school district, I also know that well-run school operations are necessary for teachers to focus on the students in front of them.

Different schools structure their school operations teams in different ways, but most schools, including traditional public schools and charter schools, have an office staff that work tirelessly behind the scenes to support teachers and school leaders. This team plays an essential role in operating the school, and these individuals are often the first faces students and families see when entering the building. That is why is it crucial that we include the staff who manage school operations in our efforts to make our schools more equitable spaces.

Transitioning to a culture of anti-racist school operations requires thoughtful planning and coordination between the school operations and leadership teams in three key areas:

Family-engagement practices: Family-engagement practices can make or break a school community. Many families of color walk into schools with their own past trauma from their educational experiences. Recognizing this and actively creating a space where families’ voices and experiences are uplifted and valued is an important first step.

Teachers and administrators must be aware of their positional power when conversing with families. While master’s degrees and teaching credentials are valuable, families bring a unique set of skills, connections, and a deep knowledge about their child that is crucial for schools to validate.

The front-office staff must create a space that is warm, inviting, and kind to all families, even when those families are expressing serious frustrations.

Schools can consider the following suggestions and questions:

  • What are the school translation policies? Do they send out messages that all families can engage with?
  • Are the school flyers and family-led groups inclusive of all family types, or do they always address “Mom and Dad” or “parents”? I often suggest using generalized language such as “guardian” or “family council” to be more inclusive of grandparents, aunties, uncles, and guardians who often play a crucial role in bringing a child up.
  • Is your front office welcoming? Does it display community resources? Are there pictures of students and families that show that the school invests in its community?
  • Are you inviting—not demanding—feedback on school policies from families?

School purchasing power: Most schools don’t have an abundance of funds. Especially in areas where K-12 enrollment is in decline, public and charter schools have a duty to make fiscally responsible decisions with taxpayer dollars. However, schools still have an enormous amount of purchasing power. While it’s easy to buy all school supplies through major corporations such as Amazon or Staples, there may be opportunities for schools to partner with local organizations to purchase books, curriculum, and school supplies.

When I was working as the director of operations at a school in a primarily Black neighborhood in Boston, my school made the conscious effort to redirect significant funds to a local Black-owned bookstore by buying a large portion of our classroom library and curriculum books from that vendor rather than Amazon.

Through state grants, some schools can partner with community organizations to provide services to students and families. In my state of California, for example, schools can apply for community schools grants to fund programs and partnerships that serve the school community.

A few easy changes:

  • School operations teams should create “asset maps” that map out local businesses and nearby organizations that schools can work with. You’ll find that many organizations have their own deep connections to the school and are excited to partner. This type of connection can also drive future philanthropic support.
  • Do you have a staff professional development lunch coming up? Consider having it catered by a minority-owned restaurant.
  • Does your school order staff “swag” in the form of custom apparel? You’d be surprised how many minority- and family-owned options there are for T-shirts and other apparel.
  • For individuals who work at the district level and manage requests for proposals for their school organizations, is there an opportunity to consider equity as a component of the evaluation process?

School nutrition program: There are plenty of data that link the importance of eating breakfast and nutritious meals throughout the school day with academic success. While nutritional standards and compliance regulations create environments where schools may not be able to serve food daily that students truly “love,” there may be room to consider opportunities to strengthen the school’s holistic approach to breakfast and lunch. Schools may consider the following:

  • Does your food service allow students to try foods from different cultures? Is there variety in the food options?
  • Does your school have a “healthy food policy?” If so, is the purpose to encourage healthy living and general wellness, or is it about policing student choices? When schools have healthy food policies that outlaw even occasional sweets and treats, it creates an environment where we demean opportunities to celebrate rather than teach moderation.
  • What is your school’s approach to free and reduced-price lunch? Is there an opportunity to reduce the stigma in your lunch practices?

School operations often cover much more than these three buckets, including student transportation, health and immunizations, student data and attendance, and recruitment and facilities. It is my belief, however, that these steps are a good starting point to aligning culturally competent academic practices with operational practices.

As we approach summer break, school operations teams can start this work by reevaluating existing operations practices and school policies to allow for more culturally competent choices. In collaboration with school leaders, school operations teams can identify areas for improvement, tap into community voices, and have conversations about taking concrete steps toward lasting and impactful change. This will then create greater alignment with school academics and lead to increased student success far beyond the classroom.

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