This week, I went and visited three schools that specifically focus on language and/or culture as part of their academic programming. I was interested in finding out about some of the reasons for specifically focusing on ethnicity in a school setting, what are some of the methods and techniques these schools are using, and what kind of results that they are having.
While the reasons for choosing a culturally specific school may vary from parent to parent, generally it seems that parents like the idea of instilling in their children the values, traditions and language that they themselves know, but are worried that in a traditional public school setting, may be lost.
Preserving language and culture looks different in each of the schools that I visited. At Hmong International Academy, most of the students already speak Hmong, so the focus is on valuing Hmong heritage and creating a space where Hmong culture is valued and supported, with bilingual teachers and support staff that can communicate in both languages with students and parents.
At Anishinabe Academy, students aren’t taking specific language courses in Native languages (with the exception of the High Five Immersion class for pre-K students), but rather the teachers receive training to incorporate Anishinabe and Dakota words and phrases into the curriculum, as well as cultural teachings.
At Windom Dual Immersion, there is less of a majority in the school of Hispanic students than Anishinabe Academy has of Native American students or Hmong International Academy has of Hmong students. Therefore the language and culture isn’t geared only for students learning about their own heritage, but also for students of other backgrounds who seek to learn Spanish and cultural traditions from Spanish speaking countries.
Creating a school that focuses on culturally specific programming has challenges, too. In the case of Anishinabe Academy and Hmong International Academy, the schools have very high numbers of students on free or reduced lunch. That’s not unusual, as there are many Minneapolis schools that face this issue, even the ones that don’t set out to teach culturally specific academics. However, research has shown that socioeconomically integrated schools are the most effective for solving reducing the achievement gap.
On the other hand, you can see why parents would want their children to attend a school that understands and supports the needs of their children, and will teach them the language and heritage that they wouldn’t get in a traditional public school. In some ways, the issue of high poverty rates at a particular school are indicative of a greater societal problem, in that across the country, as well as in Minneapolis, we simply have large disparities of income that only seem to be getting greater.