By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Havre Public Schools will conduct an internal administrative audit of race relations and cultural sensitivity this year that may eventually effect school district policy.
Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller suggested the audit during the board's semiannual planning meeting Tuesday night, after school board member Todd Hanson encouraged the board to add an item to its District Work Plan for next year resolving to provide "cultural awareness, exchange and understanding."
Hanson, who teaches in the Teacher Education and Social Sciences departments at Stone Child College, pointed out that 20 percent of the students in the district are Native Americans.
Other school board members approached the issue with caution.
"Are we providing adequate opportunities for cultural exchange, awareness and understanding in our school district?" Hanson asked.
"Adequate for what?" board member Kathie Newell said.
"Ongoing interaction, formally and informal," Hanson answered, adding that he thinks there should be an exchange of experiences between members of different cultures.
Newell asked Miller if Hanson had received information about what the district already does along those lines.
Hanson quickly cut in that he knows what the district is doing, but that he still thinks the issue should be looked into.
Board member Joe Marino agreed with Hanson.
"He brings up a good point. It's a shortcoming not only in the school but in the area," Marino said, adding that Havre's school system is not as culturally diverse as where his son used to go to school in New Jersey.
"It's a concern," Marino said. "(Racial diversity) helps students be a citizen of the world."
Hanson said he believes school board members have a responsibility to take a leadership role in the community.
"There is a lot of disharmonies going on as we speak," he said. "There is a high degree of racism in our community, and I think it's time we took that skeleton out of our closet."
Newell said she is concerned with the magnitude of Hanson's proposal in the face of all the other things the school board is taking on.
"My comment relates to the bigness of that issue. What we have on this piece of paper are expectations of each and every one of our staff people," Newell said, referring to the four projects that are part of Miller's recommended District Educational Work Plan, which will come before the board for approval on July 8. Those projects include implementation of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping education policy, and also curriculum development in technology, science and health enhancement.
"I don't mean to be putting this off," Newell said, "but I just worry that it is such a big undertaking that I'm not really sure we can add it to this work project."
Newell also said she wants to make sure an effort to achieve cultural understanding would not focus only on Native Americans.
"If we're going to talk culture, I want it to be expanded, and I don't want it just to be the group you're talking about."
"We can't ignore the fact that 20 percent of our school population comes from one ethnic group," Hanson responded.
"I will only be in favor of this if it goes beyond (one race)," Newell said.
Other board members entered the discussion as well.
"I don't think it's a school board issue alone," said board member Teresa Miller. "It's way bigger than that."
"Not solely a school board issue," Hanson added.
Board member Judy Bricker said she thought the school district already does many things to ensure cultural understanding, but that the board should examine it.
"I think, Todd, that we do do many of those things," Bricker said. "I think it would behoove us to look at what we are doing."
"I was under the impression that we have done a lot," Newell said.
"Come spend a week with me in my job on the reservation," Hanson responded.
Teresa Miller said she thought teachers were already aware of cultural diversity.
"I think our teachers and our administrators are very aware of the cultural distribution," she said. "They see it on a daily basis."
"I'm not questioning their awareness," Hanson said, suggesting the board hold a question and answer session with Native American students.
Hanson pointed to "very subtle cultural discontinuity" that exists in classrooms. He gave the example of an elementary classroom studying Egypt, in which students built a sarcophagus and mummified a mannequin.
"Native American students had to go home and go through a cleansing practice," Hanson said, because the demonstration was considered offensive under their religious beliefs. "That could have been avoided."
"How, by not doing it?" Newell asked.
"No," Hanson answered. "By getting advising to prevent it from being a culturally offensive practice."
Newell said his answer suggested that the issue has a religious dimension. In other religious matters, students have been able to opt out of offensive classroom activities, she said, adding that she was "Overwhelmed by what we're taking on."
At that point, Kirk Miller broke in and said the first step would be an audit of what measures the district now takes to ensure cultural sensitivity.
"We'll have to go out and about and find what options and opportunities are out there," he said. "I'm not sure I want to put this on the district work plan because most of (the audit) is going to be done internally." It could be added to the district work plan in the future, he said.
"To put it with the other four (projects), I don't know how we could do justice to it," he said, adding that each project requires many people and many hours of work before it is added to the work plan.
Hanson said the audit was acceptable.
Newell said she thought a day of professional development related to cultural awareness would be a "huge step."
After the meeting, Miller said HPS teachers do not undergo any district-sponsored training to help deal with cultural issues, but that "nearly everybody that is working here" has taken course work in college focusing on Native American awareness issues.
Miller said interest in the issue was renewed as a result of a new state law mandating recognition of Native American cultural heritage in schools.
The law states that "all school personnel should have an understanding and awareness of Indian tribes to help them relate effectively with Indian students and parents, that educational personnel provide means by which school personnel will gain an understanding of and appreciation for the American Indian people."
Miller said state agencies like the Board of Public Education, of which he is the chair, and the Office of Public Instruction have established plans to recognize cultural diversity, and that those would be his starting point to determine what the administrative audit will consist of.
"I think all schools in Montana are doing similar things," Miller said, adding that he would see what other schools were doing to deal with the issue.
Despite a mixed response, after the meeting Hanson said he was encouraged by the discussion.
"I thought tonight's conversation was a very important first step," Hanson said, adding that he was confident that after some research, the district would come up with a plan that would eventually become policy.
"I just offered the question as that: a question," Hanson said. "I don't have any preconceptions. I'm committed to the idea that as a school district we need to take a hard look at (race relations). We need to study this question."