Alachua County Schools, UF and SF Work to Expand Cultural Understanding and Representation
Transforming opportunities. These two words embody the mission of the Alachua County Education Compact.
A third word — culture — keeps coming up in discussions about the compact, an agreement among 30 organizations coordinated by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Culture underpins work by the University of Florida and Santa Fe College to increase science majors at UF from underrepresented groups such as minorities and students who are the first in their families to go to college.
“Students need to be immersed in a culture of research,” said David Julian, a UF associate professor of biology and co-leader of the SF2UF Bridge to Baccalaureate Program. “They need to be involved with researchers who are top scientists in their fields. They need to know about peer-reviewed publications, grants and research procedures.”
In addition, UF’s College of Education and Alachua County Schools are working together to get schools more in tune with the cultural backgrounds of all students.
This work included a pilot program last year with the Lastinger Center for Learning in UF’s College of Education.
“Often, reframing a situation by seeing it more from the student’s perspective can transform it from a negative to a positive,” said Anntwanique Edwards, PhD, the A. Quinn Jones Center’s assistant principal who participated in the pilot program.
She used the example of a student who was upset because he kept getting in trouble for looking at websites that weren’t related to his studies.
“Teachers were saying, ‘There he goes again. He’s broken through our firewall,’” Edwards said. “We tried to look at his Internet surfing differently. Clearly, it was a strength in him, and the student needed us to provide him with opportunities that connected his interest with positive computer usage and career choices.”
“It’s especially important to have cultural diversity in the educational experience. People from different backgrounds bring new experiences and perspectives into the conversation, making it possible to find understanding and solutions where they might otherwise not exist.” – Dr. Kent Fuchs, University of Florida President
Developing A Culture of Research
The SF2UF Bridge Program, the UF-Santa Fe College program formed to increase science majors, is funded by a $1.4 million National Institutes of Health grant.
“The NIH recognized that increasing members of underrepresented groups as researchers, biomedical professionals and faculty members needed to start at the community college level,” Julian said.
“Community colleges have little money for laboratory equipment, and the faculty is generally devoted to teaching rather than research,” he added.
“This puts students at schools like Santa Fe College at a disadvantage when they transfer to UF,” Julian said.
“At UF, science students are quickly immersed in research because most of their faculty members are researchers. It’s part of the culture,” he said.
Santa Fe student Taira Anderson is a beneficiary of the new program. She has big plans to become a child psychiatrist.
While volunteering at a UF Health Shands Hospital mental health clinic, a staff member recommended that she get involved in research.
“I didn’t know you had to do research,” she said. “It was a big surprise.”
When Anderson met with Beatriz Gonzalez, PhD, SF2UF Bridge Program director and professor of biology at Santa Fe, only two students had enrolled in the program.
“I wanted to do something about that,” said Anderson. “I’m involved in student government, and I got a notice posted on the student government website and helped get the word out.”
Now, enrollment is up to 40 students.
The SF2UF Bridge Program program will provide the following types of help:
A research class at which top UF
researchers will speak
Mentoring by UF science majors
Lab equipment for Santa Fe
Research laboratory opportunities once Santa Fe students come to UF, some of which will provide pay that will help students pursue their education
“I love school and I see this program as such a great opportunity,” Anderson said.
The mentors were chosen among students from underrepresented groups.
“The UF students are where the Santa Fe students will be in a year or two, and they are great role models,” Gonzalez explained.
UF student Christina Rios is excited about being one of the mentors.
“My father is from Cuba, and when he came to study at Fairleigh Dickinson [University] in New Jersey, it was very hard for him,” she said. “I love service, and I’m eager to help.”
Julian, the co-leader, is confident the program will be successful.
“The students will come to self-identify as scientists,” he said. “Grad schools want more underrepresented students, and they will be fighting over these students, offering them
Exploring Cultural Diversity
Alachua County Schools are continuing their long relationship with UF in expanding cultural awareness.
In the pilot program, Lastinger Center representatives facilitated workshops on racial equity with faculty and staff from eight Alachua County schools.
“Teachers still have a hard time connecting with all of our students,” said James Martin, who was one of the facilitators. “It’s something we generally don’t want to talk about.”
The workshops were interactive, giving participants the chance to think about how their background influenced them and consider the point of view of different participants, Martin said.
“We provided a safe container that made possible some powerful conversations,” he said.
Edwards, the A. Quinn Jones assistant principal, recalled that in one of the exercises, participants placed stickers on a wall identifying all the influences on students — from social media to drugs.
“The majority of things we can’t change, so we have to focus on what we can change,” she said.
She used the example of a student who was very upset because another student was working on the computer he had been using, protesting, “He’s in my seat.”
“We suggested he email his document to himself and work on it on another computer,” Edwards said. “‘I can do that?’ he asked. He just wanted to be respected.”
The Lastinger Center has proposed expanding on the pilot program with workshops that would involve many more teachers. At a school board workshop on the topic, board members varied in their responses.
Board member Leanetta McNealy said she saw the proposal as an opportunity for the school district to be a national leader in working on racial equity.
“We’re working on something that can be very sensitive but that it’s time to embrace,” she said.
Board member Rob Hyatt said later that he valued working with the Lastinger Center while he was a music teacher at Duval Elementary. On the other hand, it may be too soon to implement the racial equity workshops, considering all of the school district’s current initiatives requiring extensive teacher training.
These initiatives are part of a new system of care that includes a program called “Students to Successful Students,” which overlaps with some proposals from the Lastinger Center.
Hyatt recalled his own work on cultural awareness in collaboration with UF. One project used grant funding both to bring Mohamed DaCosta, a master drummer and choreographer from Guinea who is on the faculty of UF’s Center for World Arts, to the school and to buy drums to create a world-music drumming ensemble.
Hyatt, who was Alachua County Teacher of the Year in 2009, said “a love for teaching is the most important factor that helps teachers relate to students.”
“You can’t be boring,” he said. “You have to get students engaged and be joyful.”