Advisers tasked with improving ‘cultural competency’ in West Jefferson Hills
The West Jefferson Hills School District has hired two advisers in attempts to “build cultural competence in the district,” according to the superintendent.
School board members on May 28 approved the hiring of Morris Turner and Maurice Lucas as cultural advisers for Pleasant Hills Middle School and Thomas Jefferson High School, at a total cost of $24,885.
Turner and Lucas, who work part-time as cultural advisers at Oakland and Central catholic schools and are certified trainers in the Dignity and Respect Campaign, will work a total of nine hours a week in West Jefferson Hills, divided between the middle school and high school, Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.
“We recognize there is a lack of diversity in our staff,” Ghilani said. “Our diversity amongst our students is growing. Our staff is not representative of that diversity.”
According to the Future Ready PA Index, 92.7% of students in the district are white, while 2.6% are Asian, 2.2% are black and 1.1% are Hispanic.
A little more than 20% of the district’s students qualify as economically disadvantaged and 8.4% qualify for special education, the state report shows.
In February, the district was the focus of media attention after a Thomas Jefferson High School student made a racist post regarding a black classmate on social media. In response to the incident, Ghilani said, district leaders met with the Eastern Chapter of the NAACP and was contacted by numerous people looking to work with the district.
At that point, “We were looking to do something more, recognizing that maybe we need to be a little more aggressive in educating our staff and students,” the superintendent said.
Such thinking didn’t start with that specific incident or any others, Ghilani said. It was an existing part of the administrative team’s three-year plan.
In 2018, the district hired Donald Sheffield, president of TAME Inc. (or Techniques Assisting Motivation and Excellence), to serve as a cultural competency consultant, with a cost not to exceed $2,000.
Ghilani said Sheffield met with a student group and some administrators to start mapping out a plan “that would elicit widespread change over a period of time.”
However, the agreement with Sheffield “wasn’t really cost effective,” Ghilani said.
“Once he made some recommendations, we had to find a way to create change without spending a ton of money,” Ghilani said.
Following the social media incident, Turner and Lucas approached Ghilani about their work, which includes bringing the Dignity & Respect Campaign to schools.
The Dignity & Respect Campaign, founded by Candi Castleberry Singleton, helps create an environment “for all to work, live, learn, and play — with all of our differences,” according to its website.
“It’s very practical,” Ghilani said. “It focuses on treating people right. It focuses on understanding people. It doesn’t necessarily focus on the differences people have. It focuses on the strategies to get along with people.”
The goal is for Turner and Lucas to be visible in the schools, Ghilani said.
The district’s multicultural club, formed in the spring of 2018, also has recently taken off. The new advisers also will work with the students involved.
They also will be available for teacher trainings and to provide professional development.
If there’s an incident of any type — related to race, sexuality or bullying — students will be required to meet with the advisers and “talk about the levity of what they did,” Ghilani said.
The victim of an incident also will sit down with the advisers to talk about how it affected him or her.
The advisers will teach students “common sense” things such as how to “treat others the way they want to be treated” and “demonstrate mutual respect,” Ghilani said.
This is “the humanistic side of learning,” he said.