Beyond sombreros, D97 schools get a grip on cultural awareness

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

When Cynthia Brito's daughter was a student at Percy Julian Middle School, it was standard practice for winners of academic awards in Spanish class to be awarded with the opportunity to wear a sombrero. The third-generation Mexican-American student railed against the culturally-insensitive practice.

Her mother says issues such as this made her daughter feel very alienated in school and also created a spark of activism. Jocelyn approached the administration about ending the practice, and it is no longer in use today. For her mother, it was an eye-opening process. 

"It was unnecessarily complicated to get the practice to stop. It took a long time."

Cynthia Brito, now a member of District 97's Diversity Committee, says that both of her daughters -- Jocelyn, a sophomore at OPRF, and Marlene, a seventh grader at Julian -- are questioning the institutional approach to Latinx culture in Oak Park schools.

"There's an institutional side of this. There's a lack of Latinx history in the history, music and language arts classes. We're not seeing it in the mainstream culture. That has had a huge impact on my daughters. They aren't finding themselves in lessons about our heroes. It has a very negative impact."

After witnessing what her daughters experienced, Brito knew it made sense to join the Diversity Committee, now in its third year at all District 97 schools.  She was active on the policy team, which helped draft the equity policy for the district and notes there is still much work to be done.

She points out that the curriculum's Euro-centric teachings don't cover a lot of important information. "In Spanish, indigenous cultures aren't taught. They are only covered during Latinx History Month, and then often for one day. It's a missed opportunity to have more focus on Latin America."

Daughter Marlene has spoken to the school board about cultural issues and continues to push for change. In her language arts class, she would like to see more diversity in choice in the writers covered. In her Spanish class, she questions the practice of having all students choose a Spanish name.

Brito applauds her efforts, saying of the push to choose a different name in class, "What does this tell our Latinx kids in the class? This curriculum is made for white kids."

When Brito talks to other parents, she says they have experienced similar issues in the district. "There is no historical memory at the district, but there is power in organizing."

Brito says that as the population changes, it makes sense for the District 97 to make changes now. "The local Latinx community is doubling or tripling every year in the district. We need bilingual counselors. We need to build bridges with our neighbors in Berwyn and Cicero. Oak Park needs to wake up, build bridges and serve incoming families the best that we can."

According to enrollment figures provided by District 97, the percentage of Latinx students in the district doubled from six to 12 percent between the 2015 and 2016 school years. In the two years since, Latinx enrollment has leveled off at 13 percent of student population.

At Holmes Elementary School, principal Dr. Christine Zelaya and ESL teacher Jennifer Jaros say they see increasing cultural diversity among the student body and are working hard to make changes to help the school be welcoming to those of all cultural backgrounds.

Jaros notes there are currently 15 different primary languages spoken by Holmes students. For those who come from a non-English-speaking background, Arabic, Mandarin and Korean are the dominant languages spoken at home, with some Spanish, French and Hindi speaking students as well. For schools such as Holmes that have fewer than 20 students of any non-English language group at the school, ESL services are primarily pull-out, with care taken to carry over learning to in-class instruction as well. 

"For newcomers," Jaros says, "especially for kids with different alphabets and phonetic backgrounds, we meet at least four times a week and go over things such as clothing and foods, and commonly used words. For those with more proficiency, we try to go over the content they are learning in class but ahead of time."

Last year, the school instituted Hawk Nest, a program through which all children in kindergarten through fifth grade are known, nurtured and celebrated. Jaros says the program uses small groups as a way for children to get to know each other individually, work on team building and social-emotional learning.

Zelaya says Holmes has been making changes to embrace different cultures to meet the needs of the diverse student body. "In every classroom, we have five to 10 kids who are bilingual or multi-lingual. The staff is moving away from special holiday celebrations and moving towards celebrating all cultures in a respectful way." 

Cultural awareness can take place in special classes like art and music, keeping different cultures in the everyday curriculum, and Zelaya points out the staff also have to think beyond curriculum. "For example, we have so many Muslim students who are fasting during the day. We need to be thoughtful during Ramadan. We might need a different lunch room protocol. The Muslim children might need to sit out during gym class during Ramadan."

Jaros says that in furtherance of the goal of making all families feel welcome at Holmes, the recently-formed Family and Community Engagement (FACE) committee is focused on making it easier for all families to feel a part of the school.

"For parent-teacher conferences, we were able to provide translators for everyone who needed them. This year, we'll have our first year of ESL summer school for newcomers and in the spring for the first time, we will have ESL tutoring in all 10 (District 97) buildings."

For Zelaya, keeping the curriculum in sync with the community needs and planning events such as International Taste of Holmes, can help cover all of the bases. "It's not just about the language; it's about the culture too. Kids get it really fast, and we are always working to get the parents involved too."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY). 

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