New Frontier: The Quest for Cultural Competency Experts at NIIC

By Simerun Singh, Politics ’12

The most frustrating aspect of my State of the State project is that it revolves around a really specific term within education reform policy that a Washington State bill introduced in 2009 but did not effectively publicize within school districts. The term, “cultural competency”, is popular amongst a certain cadre of scholars and community development specialists, though it mainly registers blank stares amongst teachers and administrators. I’ve spent these first eight weeks figuring out how to talk about cultural competency in a way that emphasizes its legitimacy while keeping in mind that I loose my audience whenever I actually use the term “cultural competency” in conversation.

When I got to the National Immigration Integration Conference, I had very flippantly assumed that I’d get as many blank stares as I do in Walla Walla when talking about “cultural competency.” Though presenters spoke here and there about issues related to my research, I still had to explain what cultural competency was and explain why schools in Walla Walla felt the need to focus on it. Two days into the conference, I began naively searching for a session or expert that could clearly and directly outline all I needed to know about cultural competency. As naïve as that was, on the very last day I stumbled upon the session that came close to unveiling the world of cultural competency in which Patricia Loera, an education reform specialist from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, spoke.

During that very last Youth and Education session that I attended, Patricia casually mentioned a cultural competence rubric in Denver that was in its third year of use and was going well. After that session, Katie, one of my research partners, and I bee-lined for Patricia and jumped right into asking questions about the Denver Public Schools—about the rubric, about the LEAP program, about her work, about where we could get more information. This was exactly what I needed to write my survey assessing knowledge and implementation of cultural competency amongst teachers and staff in the Walla Walla Public Schools– and it was so refreshing to hear someone else, an expert at that, use the term “cultural competency” in a practical and informed manner.

It would be unfair of me to not mention that I did in fact have many wonderful and informative conversations with other people during the NIIC. But, after coming back to Walla Walla, I’m realizing that the minute-and-a-half conversation I had with Patricia really helped put the stray puzzle pieces of cultural competency theory and practice together and propelled my research further faster.

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