HOPEWELL: Schools to introduce “cultural competency” in the coming school year

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By Frank Mustac, Correspondent
The upcoming school year in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District will be one of “cultural competency,” as district officials work to learn by the example of others.
According to Superintendent of Schools Thomas Smith, the goal this year is to help students “live, study and work in a diverse world.”
“The intent of cultural competency is to help our students and help the staff understand the world around them a little bit better,” he said.
With a majority of the student body identifying as Caucasian, Dr. Smith said the push for more cultural understanding was “equally as important as the academic mission.”
“It’s not a secret that Hopewell Valley is not particularly diverse, but 94 percent of our students go off to college – usually a very diverse place,” Dr. Smith said. “Without understanding what is happening in the world around us, we tend to lose focus.”
An example of that lack of understanding, he said, came in the wake of the fatal shooting death of Michael Brown, an 18-year- old African American man in Ferguson, Mo., by a Ferguson police officer back in 2014.
At the time, Dr. Smith said, some other school districts near Hopewell Valley were preparing contingency plans for a potential student walkout as a result of what happened in Missouri.
The events in Ferguson affected many people’s lives, he said, “but for us, it wasn’t even on the radar.”
“You hear stories that in Hopewell Valley, our kids live in a bubble, and we’re guilty of that as a district sometimes,” Dr. Smith said. “So what we wanted to do is engage in some serious self-reflection.”
Another reason for focusing on cultural competency, he said, was that the teachers wanted to discuss “tough” subjects such as “race, class and gender” in the classroom.
“Like any school district, we work hard to develop programs that support our students academically and socially, but with all the stuff that’s going on in the country right now, it’s generated a lot of interest and a lot of discussion,” Dr. Smith said. “We have an emotionally charged political season. It’s raising a lot of questions about immigration and a lot of other things.”
Looking forward to the 2016-17 school year, Dr. Smith said he was confident that the district’s pupils will be able to handle those topics once they come up.
“We really want to be understanding and empathetic and have a good discussion with our kids,” he said. “We are fortunate that we have very good kids who are bright and able to debate a variety of topics.”
One the first things planned in the effort to improve cultural competency in Hopewell Valley schools will be training staff members over the course of the upcoming school year. For training, the district will be partnering with an organization in Princeton called The Center for Supportive Schools.
“They do a lot of work in this area,” Dr. Smith said.
A district-wide committee comprised of students, parents, teachers and staff members will also be formed “to look at how responsive we are to race, class and gender issues within our schools,” Dr. Smith said.
“I think we do a good job already. We have a diversity statement, but we really want to have the hard conversations,” Dr. Smith said. “We really would like to take it to that next step and improve the lives of our kids.”