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Education may be 'best tool' to ease social unrest

Jennifer Peterson (left) and Jamie Benson (right) chair the school district's new Diversity Committee, which is dedicated to teaching acceptance of diversity of all types, and preparing the district students to live and wokr in a diverse and global society. (River Falls Journal photo by Gretta Stark)

The River Falls School District has done well, so far, with promoting diversity, says Superintendent Jamie Benson.

"We would be remiss to suggest or pretend there isn't' always more that could or should be done," he said. "We have room to grow and learn and ways to improve in all areas of what we (have) done as a school district."

Diversity is one area that the school district will try to improve on going forward.

To that end, the district has formed a diversity committee, chaired by Benson and Jennifer Peterson, director of academic services.

The newly formed committee meets once a month.

Members include:

Amanda Whipkey, high school

Ann Nelson, Rocky Branch Elementary School

Ann Hensley, Westside Elementary School

Becky Briese, high school

Chad Forde, high school

Chris Silver, high school

Marie Anderson-Smolinski, high school

Nathan Wells, RFPME

Olin Morrison, Meyer Middle School

Patti Kuenzie, K-5 ELL

Peggy Gantt, Renaissance Charter School

Ellen Poppy, K-5 Spanish

Stacy Johnson Myers, school board member

Kit Luedtke, high school principal

Nic Been, high school assistant principal

Mark Chapin, middle school principal

Rick Cleary, middle school assistant principal

Nate Schurman, Greenwood Elementary School principal

Rita Humbert, Westside Elementary School principal

Charles Eaton, Rocky Branch Elementary School principal

The Diversity Committee's aim is to help guide student and staff understanding of diversity issues and to develop a welcoming, inclusive atmosphere in the schools.

The committee plans to learn more, first through professional development, about gender, race, ethnicity, culture, adverse childhood experiences and more.

Other goals: Research what other districts are doing for diversity, find opportunities for student and staff to enhance their understanding of diversity, and find ways to lead understanding of diversity in the community.

Benson said the committee was formed because the district's Strategic Plan calls for greater empathy when it comes to diversity education. He added that the country and world at large are moving in that direction.

"It is true that maybe now like no time before or maybe now like other times in our nation's past, it's time for us to really put a stronger emphasis on some of these areas as well," Benson said. "But I'm giving credit to our community for really identifying this as an issue within our Strategic Plan before the most recent escalation in our world around some of these issues. But clearly our world is calling for more of this right now."

Benson said the diversity committee's discussion has started with self-education. Then, the committee will start planning specific ways to improve diversity education in the local schools.

"We needed to educate ourselves first on these issues before we then begin to plan and discuss ways to do more in the classroom with our staff," Benson said. "I think recognizing stereotypes, recognizing when things in our world maybe are unfair, being able to recognize the harmful impact of bias and injustice is a way that we all can help to avoid escalating those kind of situations in our world.

"So all of this is kind of intertwined and really it's about helping our students, our staff, all of us as a community, to not just be smart educationally but to also be kind of heart."

Benson said diversity education, on an informal basis, has long been a part of the school district.

"Our teachers have been teaching issues of cultural diversity and issues of tolerance and issues of anti-bias and so on, for many years," he said. "But for us to rest on our laurels or just simply suggest that we've got it covered, we're doing all that we can, we would be remiss to take that approach."

Once the Diversity Committee starts rolling out specific plans, Benson said, the district will also take measures to track how well the concepts are being accepted. He said this committee is very important.

"It's a responsibility that we have as a school system to include this as a part of how we do school and what kind of learning opportunities that we provide to our students and what kind of experiences that we're exposing them to, because it not only affects their current life but it will also have a lasting impact on them in the world of work and play and ... life beyond our schools," Added Benson: "It's important that we play our part. We know that family values are first established in the home, but we also know and believe that the school has a role to play in developing strong character and strong habits of the heart and this falls in line with those pieces of our responsibility."

Benson said the goal is to teach students not just tolerance, but also acceptance.

"If our world is to be a better place," he said, "and we are to decrease some of the violence and the unrest and hostilities, here at home and abroad globally, locally, than education may be the best tool that our society has for addressing some of the social unrest that exists in our world today."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

(715) 426-1048
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