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Perspectives: The Diversity Project Provides a Different Look at Professional Development

The Lopatcong Township School District of Phillipsburg, N.J., recently undertook an action research project that had three goals: One was to increase teacher knowledge and improve teacher attitude regarding diversity. A second was to provide students with opportunities to discover similarities and embrace differences between diverse settings. The third goal was to create an on-going dialogue about diversity issues and infuse an overall ‘diversity initiative’ into the curriculum, values and mission of our district. Two schools became part of the Diversity Project: Lopatcong Township, in Warren County, a mostly White, suburban district, and Avon Avenue, a predominantly minority school, located in Newark. Teachers visited each other’s school district and shared ideas about education, attended diversity seminars and worked with students throughout the experience. The project was funded through a grant sponsored by the Geraldine Dodge Foundation.

Ultimately, we were able to meet all three goals. The results of the statistical component of the research suggest that teacher knowledge and attitude can be increased. T-test and correlation coefficient results suggest that as you raise teacher knowledge about diversity, their attitudes change about it as well. Examples of teacher attitude change were seen in their responses to questions about diversity and student achievement. By the end of the project, teachers stated that they believed a humane, democratic teaching environment has a greater impact on learning than socio-economics. Moreover, each faculty member that was part of the project agreed that deliberate efforts must be taken to counter the negative effects of race and gender stereotypes, or the social identities of students will determine their academic outcomes.

By establishing two experimental and one control group, we were able to test the effects of educational interventions. The “Workshop Group” was administered a pre- and post- survey on diversity, with a three-hour diversity seminar in-between. The “Exchange Group” was administered a pre-survey, participated in several programs (including the seminar, visits to each other’s school, and a culminating event), and took the post survey four months later. The “Control Group” took the pre- and post-survey at successive faculty meetings, one month apart, with no educational intervention. The results of that component of the study suggest that as more intensive educational interventions are administered, both knowledge and attitude will improve. Six hypotheses were tested in the study and each demonstrated statistical significance. Thus, the first goal was met through the action research portion of the study.

Student artifacts from the study, including pictures, journals and a “coat of arms” produced at the final event, indicated that students gained valuable insights into a community they knew little about prior to the study. Student artifacts also demonstrated that they learned how people are more similar than not, and that differences are something to embrace, suggesting we met our second goal. Finally, we met goal three through a newly established, annual, artist in residence program, aimed at diversity, and through enhancements to our character education and cultural arts programs. The Diversity Project was at the same time a once-in-a-lifetime experience that will provide perennial opportunities for all educational stakeholders.

As educators, the project imparted to us a myriad benefits. First, it demonstrated that by using data outcomes, professionals could more empirically determine the success of their professional development activities. Armed with some statistical achievements, teachers and administrators are more likely to convince their boards of education, boards of directors, grantors, etc., to fund future projects. Second, by connecting participants to the most current research in the field we were able to underscore the notion that all individuals can learn, but also that there are certain fundamental aspects of the teaching and learning process that must be in place. For example, the infusion of multicultural themes into all facets of the curricula, the establishment of a wholly democratic and tolerant school, and what constitutes a truly humane teaching environment were all highlighted throughout the study. Essentially, the real value of the experience was that we forced both teachers and administrators to examine the core beliefs and assumptions they held about students.

As for the students, the program touched each one of them in a positive way. Through the grant, all students carried a reflective journal and camera while they visited each other’s school and during all meetings with their middle school peers. As the first day approached student comments such as “I just always thought Newark was a bad place with bad people”; “I never thought I would even like the people from Lopatcong” and similar sentiments were reflected in the journals. In most cases, the students from Lopatcong had never been to Newark and the students from Avon had rarely been out of Newark. However, by the end of the first day together, students had exchanged e-mails and were hugging when it was time to leave. The final two gatherings resembled more of a reunion of long lost friends than anything else. At the third session, each student created a coat of arms that highlighted what they gained from the experience and how they will carry the lessons from it into high school and beyond. This session was videotaped, and what an incredible, lasting image the students made when speaking in front of 50 people, including their peers and teaching staff from both schools! At the final experience, all adults (teachers, administrators, board members) provided a statement about the value of the diversity project. Each expressed a renewed interest in infusing diversity into their teaching. All students are currently doing very well academically and are leaders in various groups within their schools. The Diversity Project is something that has been replicated by other school districts around the state.

Dr. Michael A. Rossi Jr. is superintendent of the Lopatcong Township School District in New Jersey.

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