The controversial cultural proficiency training for staff and teachers in the Omaha Public Schools has ended — but it could be resumed if the community wants it.
Superintendent Mark Evans said the two-year training effort that started in 2011 with the purchase of “The Cultural Proficiency Journey” books for all employees wound up last year, although smaller-scale, voluntary training will continue in about 15 schools.
If the community expresses a desire for further districtwide training, it could be incorporated into OPS's strategic plan, he said.
Evans said he doubts that any future training would repeat the controversial elements of the last program, which included asking teachers about their beliefs on gay marriage, voter ID laws and police stopping undocumented immigrants.
The training came under intense criticism, largely because of the views expressed in the book, which the district bought with federal stimulus money and distributed to all 8,000 employees.
The authors argued that public school teachers must raise their cultural awareness to better serve minority students and improve academic achievement. The highest level of awareness, the authors said, is cultural proficiency.
They espoused the view that teachers must acknowledge the existence of white privilege in America and that “white” is a culture. The authors also said teachers should advocate for social justice and reject a color-blind approach to teaching.
The initiative was launched while John Mackiel was superintendent. Evans took over July 1, after Mackiel's retirement.
“Now it's just a voluntary activity that a group of schools, a small percentage of our schools, participate in,” Evans said. “And they don't have to participate. It's once a month in the evening, and just some training on relationship building with a diverse population.”
Karen Abrams, board chairman of the Progressive Research Institute of Nebraska, said her group will continue to advocate for cultural proficiency training in OPS.
She said there remains a “glaring difference” between the racial, ethnic and gender makeup of teachers and administrators in OPS and the students they serve.
For instance, last school year 26 percent of students and 4 percent of teachers were black, according to state records.
Abrams said academic achievement improves when teachers and staff reflect the student body. Creating a diverse staff takes time, however, and until then, training can help teachers and staff relate to diverse students, she said.
“Teaching skills to increase cultural competence is still really important,” Abrams said. “And we hope that's going to be part of the district's strategic plan.”
The district began looking at research on diversity and cultural proficiency in 2006, in response to forecasts that the already racially diverse district will grow even more so. The district, like most across the country, has struggled to close stubborn achievement gaps between whites and minorities.
During recent community forums on the district's strategic plan, a consultant has asked participants for input on how much value they place on cultural proficiency training.
Evans said he supports efforts to foster understanding and build relationships between teachers and their students.
Some elements of the recent two-year program caused tension between teachers at some schools.
Training materials obtained by The World-Herald show that in one training session, teachers were asked to stand in the middle of the room while a moderator read “belief statements.”
After each statement, the teachers were asked to walk in silence to the corner of the room that best expressed how they personally felt about the statement. Volunteers from among the teachers were then solicited to share their perspectives on the statement.
The statements included “Nebraska should pass a same-sex marriage law,” “Police officers should be able to stop anyone they believe might be an undocumented immigrant” and “Everyone should show a photo ID before he/she can vote.”
Evans said he doubted that employees would want that included in future training. He also said he sees no reason for the book to be used again in training.
“I don't see it being resurrected again unless the community said, and the parents said, and the staff said in strategic planning, we want to resurrect that book,” Evan said. “But again I'd be kind of surprised if that was the direction.”
Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, said it makes sense to hold off on further training while officials develop a strategic vision.
“I applaud the superintendent's approach to essentially take something off the plate of teachers,” Proulx said. “I think there's enough going on right now to capture everybody's attention.”
Proulx said the program was well-intentioned, but the way it was presented could definitely be improved. At some schools, relations between teachers deteriorated because teachers were put on the spot regarding their personal views, he said.
“I think teachers struggled to see how this was directly related to their day-to-day teaching,” he said. “I think we have to do a better job of making it more obvious and making it clearer.”
If strategic planning meetings reveal that the community wants more training, teachers are willing to work with the district to design it, he said.
Although the district has seen general improvement in test scores in the past few years, Evans said there's no way to determine whether the gains were caused by the training or some other factor.