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Parents, CMS Push County For Funding For Cultural Sensitivity Training

Gwendolyn Glenn/ WFAE
Precious Oliphant (middle) said her children, Zianna (left) and Marquise have at times complained of being mistreated by teachers of other races. She said cultural training for teachers is a good idea.

The Mecklenburg county manager’s budget included a lot of what Charlotte school officials asked for, but two requests targeting the needs of mainly students of color were left out. CMS officials want $1.5 million to hire more English as a Second Language teachers and a half million dollars for cultural training for educators.

At Providence High School in south Charlotte, Jodee Boehm has taught ESL for 17 years.

“There’s a half-time person, but I’ve been the only person at Providence for quite a while now,” Boehm said. “I have 71 limited English-proficient kids and it’s a big load for one person, that’s for sure.”  

Boehm said 23 languages are spoken at Providence, but most of her ESL students speak Spanish. She remembered one student in particular from Puerto Rico who entered her class as a freshman four years ago, speaking no English.

“She came here and walked in my door with her mom and dad and immediately started crying," Boehm said, "And I thought I’d never see her again."

But she did and after spending a lot of time in ESL and other language development classes, Boehm said that the student graduated this year. She credited the student’s determination and the ESL instruction.

“We are trained to look for things that are easily accessible for an English language learner," Boehm said. "We slow down. I know the kind of required text that they can get quickly. They don’t have to struggle with the language level as well as the objective I’m trying to teach them."

ESL students’ numbers are growing nationwide -- especially in North Carolina, where nearly 7 percent of students fall into that category. According to district numbers, there were more than 14,000 ESL students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools in 2012. It’s about 17,000 now. CMS officials want the county to provide funding so they can hire 20 additional ESL teachers next year.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
Mecklenburg County Budget Manager Michael Bryant

School board member Ericka Ellis Stewart said:

“Spanish language residents are one of the fastest growing segments of our population and in our school system. So those dollars are vitally important in making sure we have teachers in place who can work with children with little or no English language skills. It's crucially important."

This also plays into the need for more cultural sensitivity training. More than 24 percent of CMS students are Hispanic but only about 3 percent of teachers are Hispanic. For African Americans in the school system, 38 percent of students and about 5 percent of teachers are black. Ellis-Stewart said that’s why they want county commissioners to approve cultural training funding for teachers, starting with 800 educators next year.

“I hear quite frequently parents concerned about a suspension or behavior referral," Ellis-Stewart said. "Would my child receive this type of interaction if the teacher understood them more effectively as a black child, as a Latino student? Maybe there isn’t that cultural context to allow the teacher to do that effectively."

Parent Precious Oliphant said her two children have had negative interactions with teachers at times. She said her daughter Zianna, whose speech on racial inequality before the school board went viral two years ago, was transferred to a different class once because she felt she was being treated unfairly. She said she thinks cultural training for teachers is necessary.

“Our children are pre-judged before their character is even known, just because of the color of their skin, or how they wear their hair. Just because of what they look like,” Oliphant said. “It would be a wonderful thing for teachers to have the knowledge on how to take care of these kids and be sensitive to their needs.”

County budget and management director Michael Bryant said the board realizes the importance of cultural training and ESL teachers. But he said the requests come at a time when county dollars are stretched thin.

“Those are two of maybe half a dozen expansion programs that CMS submitted as part of their request, and it just came down to affordability,” Bryant said. “We’re not in a position to provide additional funding to expand existing programs. That’s not unique to CMS, but to other programs as well.”

That mindset disappointed Providence ESL teacher Jodee Boehm, not just for her school, but for others that have several hundred ESL students and too few ESL teachers.

“I just fear larger and larger classes and that’s not the answer," Boehm said. "That worries me."

The county will hold public hearings on the budget next week. Ellis-Stewart said she’s cautiously optimistic that they will get the ESL and cultural training funding. But she added that anything and everything could change between now and when commissioners vote on the budget June 19.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.