Before beginning a writing exercise in her fifth-grade classroom at Melrose Elementary, Margo Evancho asks her students if they remember "old fat double D."
She feigns shock, hands on hips, when they shake their heads no.
She reminds them that one D is for detail, the other for dialogue. Seconds later, she's jogging their memories about onomatopoeia — words like "buzz" that imitate sounds — by snapping her fingers and dancing while singing out the syllables.
On-uh ma-tuh pee UH … on-uh ma-tuh pee UH.
Evancho's students eat it up. They laugh at her, but they raise their hands, too.
Two-thirds of her students are black — something Evancho, who is white, says factors into how she teaches. If she were teaching in an all-white classroom, she probably would use different language and different references.
"I'm like a chameleon," she said. "I blend in."
To some, Evancho's technique of tailoring her teaching to the demographics of her classroom is an example of cultural competency in action. Supporters of the idea, which is both complicated and controversial, say it's a way for teachers to better connect with students and parents and help kids learn more.
In Pinellas, it may be more important than ever.
• • •
The 2004-05 academic year was a rough one for the district. A white football coach told a player to get his "black a--" back in a huddle. A black middle school student complained when a white teacher said he was "taking your cotton-picking sweet time" getting to class. A white Dunedin High School teacher told a student to "get your black a-- over there" while breaking up a fight.
Former superintendent Clayton Wilcox ordered training of the district's 14,300 employees aimed at eliminating discrimination from the top down. Every employee, from bus drivers and cafeteria workers to classroom aides and teachers, was required to receive 21 hours of instruction in cultural competency to bring more sensitivity to some of the issues minority children — black children in particular — bring to school.
Fast forward to 2008. Nine Pinellas schools have a majority of black students, the result of a student assignment plan that no longer takes race into consideration. Five others are just shy of a black majority.
Meanwhile, the teaching corps remains overwhelmingly white, middle class and female, just like it is everywhere.
No school is changing more quickly than Melrose, where the percentage of black students rose this year from 56 percent to 67 percent while the ratio of black to white teachers stayed at three in about 30. The percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches rose as well.
Principal Oscar Robinson says the statistics point to an increased need for teachers to be aware of who they're teaching and where they come from.
"You have to be sensitive of kids who live in high poverty," said Robinson, who was an area superintendent before coming to Melrose this year. "It's hard to understand that by reading about it."
Robinson is planning to hold a cultural competency workshop later this month. He's also considering taking his teachers on a field trip to Midtown "to see where the kids live."
Such efforts are crucial if the district wants to improve achievement for all students, "not just the ones who come in nice, neat packages," said deputy superintendent Harry Brown.
"It has to go deeper than just flags, festivals and food," he said.
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Cultural competency can be difficult to define. It's not about white teachers "acting black," or allowing black students to mispronounce words because it's supposedly a cultural difference.
Michelle Dennard, an achievement specialist who helps with cultural competency training, has her own definition.
"It's a lens by which we examine our own biases and how they get in the way of what we do," Dennard said. "It pushes us to examine the stereotypes we have about poor children, about African-American children, about Hispanic children."
Michael Holzman, an education consultant who has done research on black student achievement, says it's important for teachers to be culturally competent. But he says it's not as important as having a deep knowledge of their subject area.
"Expressing what you want a kid to learn in a way that the kid can understand" matters a lot, said Holzman, who is senior research manager for the Schott Foundation for Public Education. But "if you don't know what you're teaching, that's not going to do it."
At least one Pinellas administrator thinks its vital to success.
"We have to make sure kids feel comfortable so they can achieve in the classroom," said Solomon Stephens, an assistant superintendent who oversees the district's cultural competency training. "It has a direct impact on student performance."
Toward that end, one teacher at Melrose said she doesn't refer to certain items during class discussions — say, a chandelier or a kayak — because she has learned that many of her students don't know what they are. She also has learned not to be put off when Asian students look down because for them, it's a sign of respect.
Former Pinellas social studies supervisor Randy Lightfoot offered a similar example, pointing to a study from the 1970s that found black students often turned their heads when teachers spoke to them.
"They turn their head so they can hear," said Lightfoot, who helped design the district's training. "It's like, 'I'm giving you my best ear. I'm interested in what you're saying, and I want to get it right.' "
• • •
Not all Pinellas teachers took kindly to the training when it was first rolled out in 2006. Some still balk at the requirement. Pinellas administrators say it's not meant to be personal.
"Some people function without knowing the level of baggage they have," Stephens said. "Many times they don't understand the impact that it has on others."
As the district moves into Year 3 of cultural competency instruction, Stephens says his office is reviewing how things have gone and realizing that there's still more work to be done, even though the number of racially tinged incidents has abated.
"People don't all at once become culturally competent," Stephens said. "You continue to grow and learn about people's similarities and differences."
The 10 Pinellas schools that have seen the largest increases in the percentage of black students.
|Bay Point Middle||43||52||8.7|
|Campbell Park Elem.||47||56||8.1|
|Fairmount Park Elem.||61||69||8.1|
|John Hopkins Middle||43||49||5.3|
|*Increase in percentage points; Source: Pinellas County Schools|