The Public Education Department recently required its 200-plus employees to participate in a training on culturally and linguistically responsive education practices, a pillar of New Mexico’s plan to achieve education equity for every student.

I advocated for the training to be required, and Secretary Ryan Stewart agreed because we want the PED to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. If we’re going to ask school districts and charter schools to adopt these practices, we wanted to show them we’re taking the medicine, too.

I call it “medicine” because culturally and linguistically responsive practices — known by the acronym “CLR” — will help cure what some may call an illness. That illness is a failure to provide a high-quality, meaningful education to all students in New Mexico, especially our most vulnerable, underserved, under-resourced students including Native Americans; English learners; those who have special needs, students with disabilities and those who are economically disadvantaged.

In New Mexico, those groups make up the largest share of our student population and we serve them best by making education relevant to them. That happens when every child feels respected for who they are when they arrive at the schoolhouse door, not for who they will be 12 years later when they leave it.

They come to us with an array of behaviors that may be expected in their home culture but unexpected in a school setting. For example, I have always attended lively, call-and-response churches where clapping, calling out from the pews, standing up, dancing and waving hands are positive actions used to encourage and affirm.

Those same actions in a school setting, although deeply ingrained in some children at a very young age, are often seen as both inappropriate and unacceptable. Does it have to be that way? A classroom rich in culturally and linguistically responsive practices makes room for that and so much more.

Unfortunately, many classroom practices and expectations are not CLR-informed. This leads all too often to students being subjected to out-of-school suspensions or referred to special education programs based on misinterpretations or assumptions regarding students’ demeanor, mannerisms and/or dialects. This has to change.

After our recent training, a colleague asked me to describe a culturally and linguistically responsive classroom. My answer: I expect to see and hear languages other than English. Allow those second and third languages to be celebrated. I expect to see classroom materials with pictures of children who look like New Mexico’s kids, who come in every size, shape and skin color. And I’d expect to see assignments that reflect those ethnic, cultural and linguistic differences so every student has an opportunity to shine.

I’d also look for movement — lots of movement between listening stations, reading stations, writing stations and small groups to provide different pathways to learning — again, respecting the fact that children learn in different ways, whether visual, auditory or kinesthetic. We don’t all have to take the same path, but the educational journey should move all students toward skills acquisition and standards proficiency/mastery.

Some people are uncomfortable when we talk about “culturally and linguistically responsive education,” but this business cannot be focused on making the grownups comfortable. We must do whatever is necessary, by any means necessary, to create real conditions for students to truly learn. We must create opportunities for real access to education to help all students understand the purpose of learning in order to authentically, directly and positively inform all of their next steps forward.

Maybe the term “culturally and linguistically responsive education” is new to some, but what it describes is not new — none of it! Being intentional in developing and implementing curriculum, standards, resources and strategies that are meaningful to our students — all of our students — should be the foundation on which our education system is built.

Today is the time to do better for students so they have a fighting chance at living their best possible lives tomorrow.

Vickie Bannerman is the Public Education Department’s deputy secretary for Identity, Equity and Transformation and is overseeing the state’s response to the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit on education equity.

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