OPS Buys 8,000 Diversity Manuals

Joe Dejka, Omaha World-Herald, July 10, 2011

The Omaha Public Schools used more than $130,000 in federal stimulus dollars to buy each teacher, administrator and staff member a manual on how to become more culturally sensitive.

The book by Virginia education consultants could raise some eyebrows with its viewpoints.

The authors assert that American government and institutions create advantages that “channel wealth and power to white people,” that color-blindness will not end racism and that educators should “take action for social justice.”

The book says that teachers should acknowledge historical systemic oppression in schools, including racism, sexism, homophobia and “ableism,” defined by the authors as discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities.

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The Omaha school board approved buying 8,000 copies of the book–one for every employee, including members of the custodial staff–in April. The decision to buy the book was made 11-0, with board member Mary Ellen Drickey passing on the vote.

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Employees will be asked to read a couple of chapters each quarter and then meet in study groups to discuss the book using a study guide produced by the district, she said. For teachers, the study sessions will be a part of their professional development.

School board President Sandra Jensen said the district doesn’t endorse everything in the book, nor does she expect employees to adopt the authors’ positions. The book is intended to open a dialogue, she said.

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The book that OPS bought, “The Cultural Proficiency Journey: Moving Beyond Ethical Barriers Toward Profound School Change,” includes a worksheet for teachers to score themselves on a continuum of cultural sensitivity. The continuum ranges from “cultural destructiveness,” as evidenced by genocide and ethnocide, to “cultural proficiency,” depicted as the highest level of awareness.

Only those educators who acknowledge the existence of white privilege in America, that “white” is a culture in America and that race “is a definer for social and economic status” can reach proficiency, the authors contend.

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The book says teachers must overcome irrational fear of homosexuality and reject the “color-blind” approach to teaching in which teachers treat all children the same. Instead, the group identity of students of color should be recognized and esteemed, the authors say.

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The authors–Franklin and Brenda CampbellJones and Randall B. Lindsey–all former teachers, write that their intent in the book is “to prepare educators to unshackle themselves from tradition and become facilitators for reconciliation of historical injustices.”

Franklin CampbellJones said in an interview that although some issues in the book are considered “challenging” and “taboo,” discussing them is important to break down barriers to educating every child.

He said the book has been well-received by other school districts using it, including San Diego and Atlanta, and districts in Maryland and Canada.

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The Omaha school district has a racially diverse enrollment. Last year the enrollment was 35.7 percent Caucasian, 29.9 percent Hispanic, 29.7 percent African-American, 3.1 percent Asian-American and 1.6 percent American-Indian. Students speak 93 different languages, Omaha Public Schools officials say.

The district, like most across the country, has struggled to close stubborn achievement gaps between whites and minorities.

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When there are gaps in achievement between whites and minorities, schools need to identify obstacles to learning embedded in school culture, policies and practices, according to the study released by the Sociedad Latina and the University of Massachusetts’ Mauricio Gaston Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy.

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