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By Focusing on Cultural Sensitivity, Districts Told They Can Build Better Relationships and Boost Student Achievement

A few years ago, administrators at Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia took a hard a look at why their efforts to connect with students were missing the mark. Just over 86% of the students were graduating.

Other data pointed to the district’s disconnect with students, said Aaron Spence, the superintendent who took the helm in 2014.

Among the more than 65,000 students, 23% were African American, 12% were Hispanic, 6% Asian and Asian American and 10% were multiracial. Many students had come to expect disruptions in schooling because their parents were U.S. Navy and Coast Guard service members.  A demographic map of the students’ households also showed another compounding factor—poverty. Forty percent of the students were living in poor neighborhoods across Virginia Beach.

It was time to recalibrate.

“Every child deserves access to excellent teaching and learning,” Spence told a group of administrators on Friday at the AASA National Conference on Education. “So we really began to embark on implementing culturally responsive practices.”

To bridge the gap with students and boost the graduation rate, Virginia Beach City Public Schools developed a plan “to provide and support culturally responsive practices to meet the social emotional needs of all students.”

The district was driven with the belief that if it could make students feel connected to what they were learning and engage parents and the community at large in student activities, then it would see measurable improvements.

Graduation rates might go up. Parents might feel more connected to their students’ teachers and schools. Teachers who supported the new culturally sensitive approach might bond more with their students and motivate achievement. And when they graduated, students would be more open to change and value differences between people, they would understand their own beliefs and culture and develop new relationships with each other.

Perhaps more importantly, students would have a say in their own education —”a voice and a choice,” said LaQuiche Parrott, director of the Virginia Beach City Public Schools’ office of teaching and learning.

The district established an advisory commission with parents as members and launched weekend programs that engaged both parents and students in weekend programs to encourage academic focus and support for graduation and college. A program for African American men connects with them and their children by celebrating Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and it has drawn support from local business and nonprofit leaders.

After six years of shifting the district toward prioritizing culture and diversity as some of its most important values, Virginia Beach City Public Schools now touts a graduation rate of 93.8%.

“It’s not just about the resources you put out there and the books you have in the classroom,” said Nicole DeVries, director of the district’s office of K-12 and gifted programs. “It happens with your connection to the community.”

(Emily Gersema is the assistant director of media relations at University of Southern California.)

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