By Sarah McKibben
Earlier this year, the staff at Kensington Parkwood (KP) Elementary School in Maryland noticed an increase in behavior referrals involving race and bullying. KP prides itself on three cornerstones—being respectful, responsible, and friendly—and these instances were out of character for the students, according to counselor Jackie Mitchell.
Committed to creating an inclusive environment, the school couldn’t let these events go unchecked. KP found that in addition to the “Five Ways to Support Diverse Families” that are outlined in the latest issue of Education Update, there’s a sixth way—bringing the school community into the effort.
“We want every student and family to feel welcome and accepted as part of our school community,” says Mitchell. “We knew we had to turn what happened into a learning opportunity and start the groundwork for conversations about differences and acceptance.”
Mitchell reached out to Welcoming Schools, a program of the Human Rights Campaign, for guidance and resources. Kisha Webster, the program’s education director, visited KP in March to speak with parents and work in the classrooms.
Webster focused on aligning expectations at home with the school’s expectations—a key, she says, to creating a welcoming school climate. She asked the small group of parents who attended the evening event, “What does respectful, responsible, and friendly look like in your home?”
When expectations at home are different than expectations at school, “it is very hard for students to buy-in,” emphasizes KP assistant principal Alayna Lynam.
Webster urged parents to initiate conversations around acceptance and tolerance at home so their children can contribute to a supportive climate at school. “Families need to get in the habit of speaking in an inclusive way, of openly talking about and responding to differences,” she says. Children tend to be “uncomfortable with anything that’s different,” which underscores the need for these conversations early on.
In “Five Ways to Support Diverse Families,” Webster explains that speaking in an inclusive way “takes a lot of practice.” In her work with educators, she leads trainings on how to cultivate conversations around differences and practices scenarios so teachers learn how to “responsibly and respectfully” address situations of bullying and respond to students’ questions about diverse families.
The students need to know what to say, too. Webster advised KP’s parents to practice responses with their children so they know how to react when others do or say hurtful or disrespectful things. “We teach kids to stuff their emotions,” Webster says, when what we really need to do is “teach kids to stand up for themselves so they can stand up for others.” It is all part of creating an ecosystem of respect and openness.
Webster then spent two days with the school’s 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders and engaged in similar conversations around expectations and differences. That work “set the stage for teachers to be able to have class meetings or circles [on] the topics of diversity and acceptance,” says Lynam.
“We want to work to provide resources and professional development to help teachers and students feel more comfortable having conversations about diversity and acceptance in order to improve the climate in our school,” she continues. “We want each student, teacher, volunteer, etcetera to feel welcome and that they are truly part of a community.”
Next year, KP plans to continue its work with Welcoming Schools, says Lynam, and use its “student council to promote kindness, acceptance, and student service learning opportunities to create an inclusive environment for all students.”
How is your school creating a forum for students and parents to talk about diversity? Share your successes in the comments below.