Three Reasons Non-Urban School Districts Need to Increase Cultural Competence and Learn the Positives of Globalization
It’s that time again when the calendar flips, we evaluate the past and plan for the future. The school year in the U.S. follows a different cycle, and regular evaluation and reevaluation in school districts must happen year round; this includes undergoing professional development.
In 2018, I had the privilege to deliver the keynote address for several district-wide convocations. I tend to focus on national and global conferences but was reminded that significant change often happens at the grassroots level, perhaps now more than ever. I began to embrace the opportunity to interact with teachers directly—they are the face of education and, if empowered to do so, have the greatest gift to offer society.
My concern in speaking at convocations for non-urban, small, and especially rural districts was that my messages of the need for greater cultural competence and the positives of globalization might be perceived as irrelevant to them. However, as I became more familiar with these local communities, I was struck by how culturally diverse many are. For example, Harrisonburg, Virginia has a rapidly changing and diverse population due to refugee resettlements (http://www.wmra.org/topic/refugees-virginia#stream/0), and there are many others that may seem homogeneous but actually have or will have a high degree of cultural diversity that needs to be included in education strategy and planning.
The Country is Becoming more Diverse as a Whole
While it is commonly accepted that diversity has increased in urban areas, diversity has significantly increased in rural areas as well. In fact, data shows that 97% of smaller cities (10,000-50,000) in the U.S. have increased diversity since 1980 (Theconversation.com). This emphasizes that the impact of immigration and growing diversity is not limited to major metropolitan areas only but extends out to all communities and thus all public school districts across the U.S.
With this trend comes the need for education leaders to foster the cultural competence of students and communities; to help them proactively seek common ground and overcome any potential fear, bias, and closed off interactions. As we saw last week in Washington DC, implicit bias appears to have contributed to misinterpreted hostilities between three diverse groups (Native Americans, white Catholic school students, and Black Hebrew Israelites) who had separately convened at the Lincoln Memorial to exercise their freedom of speech. Moreover, with the heated debate about building a wall along the southern border of the United States, the distinctions between illegal, legal, and refugee immigration are often intentionally muddled. Education must aim to correct what is at the core of such misunderstandings.
Increase of Immigrants Settling Outside of Large Cities
The number of immigrants settling in suburban and rural areas of the U.S. has grown substantially and the trend continues to move in that direction. Since 2014, over 61% of immigrants now live in suburban areas (The Atlantic). These individuals seek the same things we all look for: affordable housing, job opportunities, and quality schools for their children, to name a few. This outward mobility from urban centers means that suburban and rural school districts are indeed more diverse than ever before, and the skills to understand, appreciate, and value people from different backgrounds and cultures needs to be high priority.
Diversity Has Become Self-Sustaining
Not only has diversity from immigration increased across all areas of the U.S., this diversity is generally self-sustaining. Minority groups are maintaining and growing through the birth of children. The majority of U.S. Hispanics are now native born. Of the 57.4 million people in 2016 who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino, only 34 percent (19.6 million) are first generation immigrants (Migration Policy Institute). Cultural dynamics in the U.S. are changing permanently and all communities and school districts are impacted. We must each increase our own cultural competencies and develop pathways to instill skills for listening, learning, and appreciating the value of people from different cultures and backgrounds. Forward-thinking educational leaders must equip teachers to model and teach cultural competence in the classroom. It’s an amazing time to be alive.
I’d welcome the opportunity to talk further about these trends and how your school district is working at increasing cultural competence among students and families.