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Portage schools to evaluate curriculum this year with a focus on equity, cultural responsiveness
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Portage schools to evaluate curriculum this year with a focus on equity, cultural responsiveness

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Nikki Schoenborn

Nikki Schoenborn, the Portage school district's elementary teaching director, speaks during a meeting Monday of the Curriculum and Instructional Technology Committee in the administration building. The committee discussed ideas on how the district could become more "culturally responsive."

Rather than a day off, Martin Luther King Jr. Day might become a day of service or an assembly day on civil rights for Portage students, as part of educators’ efforts to make the district more “culturally responsive.”

The Portage Community School District’s equity team has decided to evaluate and update curriculum this year to improve equity in the district, including by scheduling something special on the federal holiday, said Matt Paulsen, director of secondary teaching and learning.

“We decided that we were going to really concentrate on that culturally diverse and culturally responsive movement in our district and trying to be better at that,” he told the curriculum committee Monday.

Nikki Schoenborn, the district’s director of elementary teaching and learning, said the options for MLK Jr. Day, which is Jan. 18, included holding an assembly or having students spend the morning working on service projects.

“It was very clear that education was the most important thing … for everybody, not just the day off,” Paulsen said. “That was the most important thing, is that people understand the civil rights movements, not just Martin Luther King, but everybody that’s been involved.”

They noted the importance of educating not only students on diversity and civil rights, but also the community, school board members, teachers and other district staff.

'Like a light bulb going off': Portage teachers diversify libraries, teaching methods for reading

Committee member Kelly Behnke asked if the public would be invited to the potential assembly, like the district has done for Veterans Day each of the last 15 years. Paulsen said the team considered that possibility and invited Behnke to participate on the committee that will be formed to organize the effort.

Analysis of curriculum, in addition to changing how the district observes MLK Jr. Day, is to prevent the equity team’s efforts from becoming “one-and-done,” Paulsen said.

“Because it can’t be just a small section of time, it’s got to be something that’s infused in everything we do,” he said.

According to Paulsen, the equity team was formed early this year, prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, over concerns that education is not being offered equitably in the district. The team consists of about 20 teachers, but will expand to include community members in the future, Paulsen wrote in an email Thursday.

He pointed to the district’s state report card, which gave Portage a “closing gaps” score of 61.7 out of 100 in 2018-19, the most recent year for which reports have been released. In the previous year, Portage scored 59.6. Of all the areas rated in the report card, Portage scored lowest in closing gaps both years.

The metric evaluates how groups of students are improving in academics and graduation rate to examine how well the district is closing statewide achievement gaps between students of various demographics. It looks at race/ethnicity, disability status, economic status and language barriers.

With 2,316 students enrolled in 2018-19, Portage’s student body was 85.1% white, 8.3% Hispanic/Latino, 2.6% Black or African American, 1.1% Asian and 2.2% multi-racial, according to the report card. More than 14% were students with disabilities, 37% were economically disadvantaged and under 2% were English learners.

One team member, Portage High School social studies teacher Elizabeth Hansen, shared her thoughts with the Daily Register in an email Thursday. Students need to learn from a diverse frame of reference culturally because the world is not homogeneous, she wrote.

“Our kids deserve to know that and we, as educators, are responsible for sharing viewpoints that represent a variety of our students,” Hansen wrote. “It is important that students can see themselves in what they learn.”

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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