Workshop participants focus on racial diversity and sensitivity

GREENVILLE – More than 50 elementary teachers and principals from the four Greenville area schools participated in a workshop on sensitivity and diversity sponsored by the diocesan Office of Ethnic Ministries.

The two-hour session, held Aug. 21 at St. Mary Church, was a follow-up to an initiative started a year ago by Bishop Robert J. Baker to bring sensitivity and diversity training to all schools in the diocese.

Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries, brought in a team of experts, including a clinical psychologist, to develop a plan for implementing diversity training.

The team set out to measure the current level of diversity in the schools, starting with a survey of all school faculty and staff in the diocese.

The results of the survey show that the diversity climate in diocesan schools is strongest in the areas of academic qualifications among faculty, salary levels among faculty, social interaction, and administrative support.

Merritt said the survey also indicates that minority teachers aren’t well represented in diocesan schools.

“That doesn’t necessarily indicate that people are prejudiced and just don’t hire minorities,” she said. “It could be an indication of how schools hire minorities or retain them or the availability of minority teachers.”

Survey results were also low on the question of whether a particular school highlights the contributions made by minorities, but those numbers could be misleading.

“It may not necessarily mean that a school doesn’t highlight minority contributions,” Merritt said. “A lot of the responses were that people were neutral – they didn’t know if they did or not.”

Conversely, the survey shows that most school administrators in the diocese appreciate the time teachers and staff spend fostering multicultural understanding and cooperation.

Armed with the survey numbers, teachers and staff from the four Green-ville Catholic elementary schools – Prince of Peace, St. Mary, Our Lady of the Rosary, and St. Anthony of Padua – split into groups of 10, each charged with finding solutions to diversity weaknesses identified in the survey.

Franciscan Sister Catherine Noecker, principal at St. Anthony School, said her school’s unique makeup allowed her and her staff to bring proven ideas to the table.

“We’re 98 percent minority already,” Sister Noecker said. “Our faculty and staff are already very diverse.”

On the issue of bringing more minority teachers into the classroom, workshop participants said that while it’s important to hire qualified teachers, the importance of diversity shouldn’t be overlooked.

“What are the advantages if you do go out of your way to hire a minority teacher and see Jesus in all types of people?” Merritt said. “When you have Vietnamese, Hispanics and African- Americans in the classroom, it’s very important that they see someone like them in those leadership positions.”

To increase interaction between groups of different ethnic backgrounds, workshop participants suggested that teachers “go the extra mile” when inviting speakers into the classroom.

“For example, bring in an African- American surgeon or a Vietnamese engineer,” Merritt said.

Merritt also led a discussion with the teachers and administrators on ways to clear the language barrier that can make it difficult for Vietnamese and Hispanic families to fully participate in school.

Some schools can’t offer courses in English as a second language, but that shouldn’t keep them from finding other ways of accommodating the child who has trouble with the language.

“Get a resource base of teachers who are willing to work with that child and offer that to the mother before you decide to take that child out of the school,” Merritt said.

She told the teachers and principals to challenge their school boards to “go out there and find more resources.”

Merritt said she hopes the Greenville schools will invite her back “so we can take it another step.”

“It’s part of a process,” she said. “We’ve identified some areas which we will evaluate and take to the next level.”