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Stories about differences and diversity in Cornell project give community members a voice

"My dad worked a lot, and he didn't know English so I was the one who did the bills … I would be doing math with the taxes but then I would go to math class, and since they're teaching it differently, I wouldn't know that I already knew ..."

Such stories as these of youth knowledge and experiences of inclusion and exclusion filled the Borg Warner Room in the Tompkins County Public Library, May 3, as students from the Cornell course Diversity in the Classroom, taught by Sofia Villenas, associate professor of education and Latino studies, collected stories for their service-learning project, "Community Voices: Stories of Family, Culture and Education."

The Cornell students interviewed Ithaca City School District (ICSD) students, educators, parents and community legislators to document the strengths, resources and wealth of knowledge that youth and families have, rather than what they lack, and to examine issues related to inclusion and exclusion in the ICSD. The stories will be part of an in-depth analysis that will be used for teacher education and professional development.

"We want to get our students who want to be teachers experienced in listening. It's a different thing when you hear about experiences of exclusion in their [schoolchildren and their parents] voices, when you see it in their bodies," says Villenas. "It adds more depth and emotion to learn about those experiences by talking to people, rather than only reading about inequality and discrimination in the books."

The interviews helped the students dispel stereotypes, such as working and single parents are "uncaring." The stories also expressed parents' and students' frustration with the lack of response to incidents of racism in schools and feelings of inferiority when teachers convey, for example, that nonwhite students do not belong in advanced classes.

"In my 45-minute interview with an African-American kid, I felt the weight of something being dealt with daily, just like breathing," said Adam Lindsay, a Cornell Ph.D. student in education.

Audience member Vongai Kandiwa, a Ph.D. student in development sociology from Zimbabwe, said that she noticed that her 6-year-old daughter was reading books at Northeast Elementary School that only featured white characters. After e-mailing her daughter's teacher about issues of representation, her daughter began to regularly come home with readings about different peoples and cultures. In Zimbabwe, she said, she was exposed to world geography and global culture in school. "American -- and all children for that matter -- need to learn in ways that help them to appreciate and celebrate differences," said Kandiwa. Because of this deficit in American education, students tend to homogenize such subgroups as Asians and Africans, she said.

Others emphasized systemic problems in the ICSD. Roberta Wallitt, a community activist and retired teacher who has been working on the retention and recruitment of teachers of color and establishing leadership committed to equity, said that since the superintendent dismantled the school district's affirmative action office in 2000, little attention has been given to the retention of teachers of color who are better able to understand minority students. There has also been limited success in increasing the diversity of the workforce.

"Most school board members have historically been white, and they often have a tendency to be most concerned about their own children rather than other people's children," said Wallitt, also citing socio-economic factors. "You have to be privileged to serve on the board because there is no pay."

The project is funded by Cornell's Public Service Center with co-sponsorship from the Department of Education and the Cornell Education Society.

Nina Zhang '09 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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