- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The first week of school next month will feature lessons on diversity awareness for every student from prekindergarten through 12th grade.
Those lessons are being developed this summer by Charna Lacey, who was hired in May as St. Mary’s public schools’ diversity and equity specialist to work with students and staff on topics associated with diversity, tolerance and respect.
While no one incident spurred the lessons, she said, they are needed to help align with the mission statement of the St. Mary’s public schools: “Know the learner and the learning, expecting excellence in both. Accept no excuses, educating all with rigor, relevance, respect and positive relationships.”
“We really want to celebrate diversity this year,” Lacey said, focusing on “know the learner” and the “building positive relationships” segments of the mission statement.
Some of the lessons will utilize technology, perhaps by showing video clips or using computer lessons, she said.
Others involve using books or other nonfiction texts. For example, she said, some elementary classes will read and discuss the book “All the Colors of the Earth” by Sheila Hamanaka. The book describes human skin tones and hair by likening them to colors like rose, honey or brown sugar through poetry, she said.
Each classroom will also be furnished with a poster related to diversity that can be used as a teaching tool, she said.
Some lessons, which were developed with the help of counselors and teachers during a three-day workshop at the end of the last school year, may be directly taught as a lesson on diversity. But others will be less formally introduced during the first week of school as students and teachers get to know each other, she said, adding that they will tie into the schools’ student code of conduct.
Secondary school principals can decide whether to incorporate the lessons into English and language arts classes (since all students take such a course every year) or in homeroom periods.
She said the goal is to have students and teachers develop an appreciation of cultural differences, an appreciation that will lead to end of year celebrations at each school.
Superintendent Michael Martirano charged Lacey with developing the lessons for the first week of school so that every student in St. Mary’s public schools would experience some type of diversity awareness. All teachers, too, will take part in professional development related to being more culturally and racially sensitive.
Lacey’s hiring came after an incident last school year involving students brandishing a noose at Leonardtown High School. Students involved were disciplined, but some in the community said school officials did not come out soon or strong enough to condemn the incident.
The new diversity specialist said lessons will address hurtful symbols and words, both minor and major, “that rear their ugly heads throughout the year,” she said.
She said that while she has planned for possible resistance to the lessons from some students or parents, she hopes it will be minimal.
Parents can opt out of having their students take part, as they could during a diversity play presented last spring in the high schools. Those who do opt out will have assignments related to the lessons sent home that they must complete, perhaps under the guidance of their parents, she said.
Lacey said she will work with Mike Wyant, director of safety and security, to present a play this fall in local high schools performed by the College of Southern Maryland Cause Theatre.
Lacey has visited with principals and administrators at each school over the summer to learn about specific demographics, issues and accolades.
“Many of the schools have done a lot of work in diversity,” Lacey said. She has worked with those schools to make sure new lessons don’t overlap with current practices, but instead supplement diversity teaching.
“Diversity looks very different, not just from the north to the south of the county,” she said.
The term diversity may have different meanings at different schools, she said. Some schools may have significant enrollments of a certain race or nationality, economically disadvantaged families, a particular disability or even sexual preference.
Lacey said that she plans to work with clubs in the schools related to diversity, such as the Great Mills High School Gay-Straight Alliance.
She said she would like to include lessons on the school system’s online site for teachers that they could access related to gay and lesbian diversity and acceptance. “I am looking into that,” she said.
She said that some of the schools’ work will be limited by what is allowed to be taught by state law, especially based on grade-level lessons.
Lacey has also begun meeting with community groups and agencies, including the local chapter of the NAACP, Navy representatives, the sheriff’s office and others.
“Our organization did advocate for that position” Janice Walthour, chair of the St. Mary’s NAACP education committee, said. “I’m just hoping that it’ll remain there and be strengthened through the work she’s doing.”
Walthour said that teaching civility is important, even with racial integration of the schools decades past. “It’s not just about reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s also about getting along with each other,” Walthour said.
Lacey said minority teacher recruitment was one topic she has heard needs to be addressed. She said she will work with the school system’s human resources department to help boost the number of minority teachers to better reflect the student population.
“Dr. Charna Lacey will be a wonderful addition to our staff, bringing a solid commitment to promoting equality and diversity and a strong focus on multicultural education within the St. Mary’s County public school system,” Martirano said.
Martirano said that the multicultural education will be ongoing throughout the school year. “I want to ensure that every child is able to learn in an environment where he/she is safe and free any form of bullying or harassment as a result of one’s differences,” he said.
Lacey began teaching in 1999 at Bladensburg High School in Prince George’s County and most recently served in a similar diversity administration role with Charles public schools.
She said that while Charles County has a larger number of African-Americans, St. Mary’s seems to have a more diverse population in terms of other races and cultures, in part because of Patuxent River Naval Air Station. “That’s actually a plus to the system because it helps young people have more of a global perspective in life,” Lacey said.