Chamberlain group wants school cultural standards following “White Pride” shirt issue

By Melanie Brandert
Chamberlain, South Dakota (AP) May 2010

A group of parents in Fort Thompson, Lower Brule and Chamberlain are working with Chamberlain school officials on passing a resolution establishing districtwide “cultural competence standards.”

A draft of the resolution created by The Coalition for Cultural Equality calls for the school district to value diverse cultures within the community and incorporate the goal of staff diversity into the district’s policies, mission and strategic plans.

The measure also asks the district to gauge progress in achieving those standards through ongoing evaluation and assessment of its practices.

The resolution was being crafted more than a month before a May incident involving six white students who wore “White Pride World Wide” T-shirts to school, and one coalition member sees the measure as a first step to healing race relations in the community.

Jim Cadwell, a Santee Sioux tribal member who grew up in Fort Thompson and has four children who are students or alumni at Chamberlain, said it will be a positive step to help all minority children if the school board approves the resolution. Cadwell is seeking a seat on the board.

“Somewhere along the line, we end up with developing different attitudes about other people,” he said. “(The resolution) offers an opportunity for us as a community to look at ourselves in an objective way and explore opportunities about ways we can improve ourselves.”

The coalition began meeting with Superintendent Tim Mitchell last November, when parents began to have concerns about how minority children were being educated in the district, Cadwell said. Initially, some concerns with racism were expressed, along with a desire to incorporate minority cultures into the curriculum to boost test scores – a method backed by the National Education Association.

In the past, the district has conducted school board meetings in nearby Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Sioux Indian Reservation twice a year to get input on American Indian programming and issues, Mitchell said.

After the initial meetings with Mitchell, coalition members began attending meetings of an existing Indian Parent Committee to discuss the district’s cultural proficiency and its efforts to ensure the celebration of all cultures.

“We are interested in having a conversation with people in the district in how we are being fair and balanced in accepting cultures on a regular basis,” Mitchell said.

Indian students make up the largest ethnic minority at 297, or 33 percent, of the 905 students in the district. But 18 Hispanic, six Asian, four African-American and one native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander also attend school there, Mitchell said.

Mitchell brought up the issue of institutional racism at the last school board meeting in Fort Thompson, said Sarah Stockholm, a former Chamberlain student teacher who is a coalition member.

“That is a topic many school leaders are beginning to understand and need to address in smaller towns,” she said. “I think it’s a positive step Chamberlain is willing to take that leadership.”

Mitchell said he shared a national journal article at the meeting that said racism hasn’t necessarily disappeared from schools. The article defined institutional racism as an indirect, largely unrecognized process that results in less access and fewer opportunities for students, he said.

“While it’s unintentional, it still can have an effect,” Mitchell said. “It talked about (how) educators need to understand racism, the context of discrimination and blatant, unfair treatment.”

The article also suggested ways to deal with the idea of that kind of racism, he said.

In response to the coalition’s concerns, a cultural awareness survey is being conducted among Chamberlain staff, and Mitchell will share those results at Monday’s school board meeting.

An in-service day will take place on May 24 to address diversity with staff, Mitchell said. Teachers also plan to attend the state Education Department’s Indian Education Conference in Chamberlain next year.

Coalition members believe it is important to acknowledge everyone’s cultural differences and strive for equality, Cadwell said. He declined to say how many people belong to the group.

“One culture is no better than another – it’s just simply that they are different,” Cadwell said. “In order for our children to excel in school, to excel in the community and to excel in the family, they need to be given a positive image of who they are.”