When I became principal of an elementary school in a community tucked into a gorgeous neighborhood in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis. I was full of positive energy. Our school had experienced several years of “white flight” and were transforming from a predominantly white school to a multicultural school. Our demographics had shifted from 75% white to 40% white in three years. As a staff and faculty we were using Cultural Proficiency as a way of understanding equity and access for all students. We were also using Bridges’ Transitions to better understand the change process we and the community were committed to. We felt we had moved through the grieving phase, and were experiencing the celebrate diversity phase, and were ready to operate on the right side of the cultural proficiency continuum where all students/families could truly benefit from being a part of our school community. I thought we were on our way. Our data, thanks to vulnerable and brilliant teachers and leaders prior to my arrival, was suggesting we were getting to more equitable outcomes. Our Somali families (40% of our student population), in particular, were reporting they felt a part of our school. I thought I had our equity plan figured out and that we were going to be better and stronger than ever before.
And then, I realized I was not as culturally proficient as I thought as a leader or as a school community. On a beautiful spring day we were scheduled to practice a school-wide safety drill. In the 60+ year history of the school, a safety drill had never been conducted. We were going to practice moving students from our school to our neighboring evacuation site. We realized we might need to exit the school and shelter somewhere close for some time, so we designed a school-wide safety plan. We wanted to test our plan to be sure it was possible. We met and reviewed expectations and knew faculty and staff were ready. We had district office and law enforcement partners on site to help move students and also provide after-action feedback.
We initiated the drill and everything was going brilliantly. Our youngest and oldest students were implementing our drill with perfection. Our faculty and staff were wholeheartedly caring for each and every student just as we had rehearsed. As we approached the evacuation site a group of 5th graders stopped in the parking lot. They seemed upset and were huddled together in the lot with a couple of their teachers. As I approached the group of students seemed to have gotten bigger. The staff members looked concerned. The students would not move forward toward the evacuation site.
The students and staff seemed to be very upset, but for different reasons. Faculty and staff were upset because students would not move forward. The students saw the cross on our neighboring church, which was also our evacuation shelter, and froze. They were worried that their siblings were being converted within the walls or worse. The students, many of whom were new to our country in recent years, were convinced that they were being led into a immediate threat. I was trained to make sure the students, especially in safety situations like this, complied with staff requests. I had shared this expectation over and over. How could these students not trust me? We had developed strong relationships all year. I worked countless hours going to home visits on weekends and meeting with their families to help get them what they needed. I took their behavior at that moment as a sign of disrespect. I felt like everyone was watching what I, the principal of the school, would do next. I stepped in front of the group of students and explained to them that the purpose of movement was for their safety and not for religious purposes. Then, I directed them into the building. The group refused. I threatened consequences if they did not comply. They refused. So, I directed louder. They still refused. Finally, I realized I needed to end the power struggle by concluding the drill and helping the students and staff back to our school building.
Two hours later, I sat alone in my office with an empty school wondering why this day filled with hope and opportunity felt so miserable. I felt like a complete failure. We had prepared well and had put so much into making this safety drill successful. Instead, I found myself in a shouting match with a group of twenty 5th graders I had promised to care for unconditionally. I decided to call an incredible mentor about all things multicultural. She answered immediately. I shared with her what had happened. She listened attentively as she always does. Then, she challenged me with three questions: (1) In what ways are you using your tools of cultural proficiency? (2) Why are you alone right now when you have amazing experts on your staff ready to help? (3) How strengths and resources might you leverage to make things better?
I pulled out my copy of Cultural Proficiency: A manual for school leaders (Lindsey, R.; Nuri-Robbins, Terrell, R. 2008). As I reviewed the framework within the text, the Guiding Principles seemed to leap at me from the page. People are served in varying ways by the dominant culture. And each cultural group has unique needs. The words that the family, as defined by each culture, is the primary system of support in the education of children led me out of my paralysis. I called our social worker who is Somali. He shared with me his wisdom and guidance. I was not aware how frightened the students were of entering the church building that we had designated as our safe place.
That evening, we messaged our Somali speaking families and called for a family meeting at the school the next day. I was humbled and overwhelmed with gratitude as we came together in less than 12 hours the next morning to discuss, heal, and move forward. The families shared their historical context of colonization and religious warfare that had defined generational suffering that led, in many cases, to their immigration to the United States. We planned together how the families would discuss the intent of our safety procedures and how the church next door was the only shelter within walking distance that could accommodate our students in the case of an emergency. We shared Somali tea and food together. We shared gratitude and appreciation. We spoke truth together, laughed together, and discussed plans for a better future. Together. These were the essential elements at work: assess culture, adapt to and value diversity, manage the dynamics of differences by seeking multiple perspectives.
As a white, male, school leader in a beautifully diverse community, I find myself in the middle of intercultural conflict. Sometimes I cause the conflict; sometimes I do not. The conflict can be a reason for division, apathy, and paralysis; or, the conflict can be a catalyst for learning, individual growth, and togetherness. The Guiding Principles have helped me be more competent and have lead me to daily joy, confidence, and hope. I am happy to say we continued to practice our evacuation drills to the church next door each of the next three years. We made sure our parents were able to participate in the safety drill planning and implementation every step of the way. Because we chose dialogue, community, and application of the tools of Cultural Proficiency, we were able to adapt to a brighter future where all community members benefited.
I share this story with you because I often assess myself on the Continuum of Cultural Competence (behaviors). I know that some days I’m more Culturally Competent than other days. I’ve learned that Cultural Proficiency is a day-to-day journey for learning about myself as I serve others. The tools save me every day. They give me confidence and hope for a better tomorrow.
Dr. Chris Bellmont
Principal, Burnsville High School
Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District