Omaha Public Schools employees likely will get a controversial book about cultural proficiency during the second semester of this school year.
Reading the book won't be mandatory, but district officials hope employees do read it.
"You really can't mandate anything," said Carolyn Grice of OPS's student and community services department. "It will be an expectation."
The school board spent more than $130,000 in federal stimulus money to purchase 8,000 copies of the book, "The Cultural Proficiency Journey: Moving Beyond Ethical Barriers Toward Profound School Change."
OPS officials have said the book is one aspect of the district's three-year plan "to systematically make a shift in the culture of this organization."
The book includes a worksheet for teachers to score themselves on a continuum of cultural sensitivity, ranging from "cultural destructiveness," as evidenced by genocide and ethnocide, to "cultural proficiency," depicted as the highest level of awareness.
The book's authors contend that only those educators who acknowledge the existence of white privilege in America, that "white" is a culture in America and that race "is a definer for social and economic status" can reach proficiency. Those who score poorly on the worksheet are asked in the book what they will do "to align yourself with the values expressed."
The school board discussed the cultural proficiency and diversity plan for an hour Monday as part of the district's professional development plan. No board action was taken, but many board members agreed with the need for cultural proficiency training and the use of the book.
"It may be controversial, but it's right for the students we represent," Grice told the school board.
OPS's 50,000 students speak about 100 languages at home. About 72 percent of the district's students come from families in poverty, and about 15 percent of the students are learning English.
Board member Justin Wayne said he is glad the district is teaching cultural proficiency but wonders if teachers already have too much to do, such as mastering the district's new grading system that was launched last school year.
"It's a timing issue for me, not whether it should be done or not," he said.
OPS administrators said cultural proficiency training would be integrated into already existing timeframes, such as professional development meetings and staff meetings.
"As we look at cultural proficiency, it's a mindset, not a program," said Janice Garnett, OPS assistant superintendent for human resources.
Before employees get the book, all employee groups will have had at least one 90-minute conversation meant to create self-awareness and spur reflection, Grice said. "We're just getting them to think differently right off the bat."
Exactly when schools receive the books will be up to them, depending on when they can schedule the 90-minute discussion, Grice said. For the majority of schools, it will be after the first semester.
Board member Marian Fey said she read the book. "It struck me how it was about so much more than race," she said.
Conversations among employees must accompany any reading of the book, board member Kersten Borer said. "If there's not adequate time for discussion, the whole power of the book might be lost," she said.
OPS plans to partner small-group employee discussions with the reading of the book, Grice said.
"It's improving academic achievement because we're understanding better how kids learn," she said. "You understand their behaviors and how to deal with them."
District administrators and board members said cultural-proficiency training isn't a new idea for OPS. They've been teaching it for the past 30 years, administrators said.
"The only thing that's different is we have a different book. That's it," said Freddie Gray, board member. "This is a journey that is not going to end anytime soon."
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