“Not all students need the same thing to succeed.”
This is the idea that Sam Ouk, Faribault Public Schools’ multilingual and equity program coordinator, brought to the table at the Monday’s Faribault School Board meeting.
Ouk, whose former position at Faribault Public Schools was the district English Learner coordinator, now takes on the task of helping staff members provide equitable opportunities for all students. At Monday’s meeting, Ouk shared with the board the meaning of equity versus equality, Faribault Public Schools’ demographics, tools to address cultural bias and a three-year plan for the district.
Ouk conveyed the difference between equity and equality with two illustrations. One showed three people standing on three boxes of the same height to see over a fence, but since each person was a different height, this equal opportunity didn’t actually help everyone equally. The other illustration showed the same three people standing on boxes of varying heights — or no box — to allow each one the ability to see over the fence. The latter picture showed that equity, more so than equality, is about meeting students at their level.
In a school district represented by 21 different languages, Ouk said an equity approach would help bridge the gap between students. According to the statistics Ouk shared, 57% of Faribault Public Schools students are fluent in English, 22% speak Somali and 18% speak Spanish. All other languages fell into the 3% category.
Language, diet and wardrobe only scratch the surface when it comes to cultural differences, said Ouk, and these topics are often looked upon as conflicts. To reach the level of deep understanding on topics like raising children, gender roles and attitudes toward self, Ouk suggested the surface-level differences need to be celebrated.
In another segment of his presentation, Ouk used a video clip on the Ladder of Inference to show the subconscious human process of forming a bias. He spoke about “short circuiting” assumptions to make room for understanding, which involves considering the experiences of someone from a different culture. To do this requires tuning into one’s “Courageous Conversation Compass” with believing, thinking, feeling and acting. Those four aspects, if not applied, could turn into disbelief, fear, ignorance and fatigue. In his experience, Ouk said the district tends to operate in the latter more often than it should.
“It happens on both sides … ” said Ouk, referring to both teachers and students. “The end result is unhealthy.”
To improve equity in the district, Ouk proposed a structure that involves equity teams, operating at both the district level and at each building site, and training at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He also described a three-year plan for the district, during which staff spends the first year supporting students in telling their stories and bringing those stories together.
“We want equity embedded into the process we do, not added on,” said Ouk.
One of School Board member Carolyn Treadway’s concerns is that staff may approach the new structure with enthusiasm but gradually become fatigued without detailed strategies to follow. Aware of neighboring districts doing equity work with staff and students, she asked if there were possible offerings to get the Faribault district up to speed faster.
Interim Superintendent Todd Sesker agreed that the Owatonna School District has a great equity model to follow and suggested Ouk touch base with Owatonna EL Coordinator Martina Wagner to form parallels.
School Board member Yvette Marthaler also suggested reaching out to the city and Faribault community at large.
“I think it’s all connected,” he said.