Goshen Community Schools is home to a diverse learning community representing a myriad of cultures, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s colorful and complex and sometimes messy –– and the school system wouldn’t have it any other way.
Embracing the power of difference
Goshen Schools’ student body makeup is a direct reflection of Elkhart County’s continually diversifying population. Let us break it down with some numbers: Elkhart has one of the highest Latino populations in the state, tying with Clinton and Cass counties. The city of Goshen has a Latino population of nearly 30 percent. Much of the growing Latino population is made up of Millennials and Gen Zers, which is illustrated perfectly in the fact that just over 50 percent of Goshen Community Schools’ student population is Latino.
But of course, Goshen Community Schools’ diversity doesn’t start and end with its Latino population; the school’s population runs the gamut on nearly every measurable and immeasurable scale. A few of the measurable, as reflected in city data: Twenty-eight percent of city of Goshen’s population speaks a language other than English at home, and 16 percent of the population was born in another country –– making the city (and the schools!) a colorful and vibrant mix of cultures and traditions.
Recognizing the plentiful advantages that diversity can offer, administrators have made a conscious choice to embrace it with open arms. By celebrating its diversity, the school system makes its hallways, classrooms, and playgrounds happier, safer, and more productive places for each student.
“To us, it makes no difference if your family has been in our community for generations, or if your family is new to our community,” wrote Superintendent Diane Woodworth in a parent letter published on November 21, 2016. “Goshen Community Schools is a safe place where all students will be given the opportunity to learn and grow without fear.”
Awareness, consciousness, and responsiveness
In the fall of 2016, school administrators initiated a partnership with a local expert in diversity training, Goshen College‘s Gilberto Perez Jr. (You may recognize his name –– we’ve written about Gilberto before. You can read more about his work here.)
In early October, Gilberto and two of his colleagues, Goshen College Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations Richard Aguirre and Center for Intercultural and International Education (CIIE) Coordinator of Intercultural Community Engagement Rocio Diaz, met with GCS administrators for a diversity awareness training session –– the first of many.
“The partnership is about trying to raise consciousness,” said Gilberto. “We want to create spaces where school administrators can learn more about their students’ cultures. We want educational leadership to understand the different ways students work, their cultures, and how they make decisions.”
Already, their meetings have led to positive action. Rocio is working to help Goshen Middle School offer education workshops to parents, and Goshen College Biology professor Jody Saylor, who has completed training through the School Reform Initiative, is offering monthly training on Intentional Learning Communities to teachers at Goshen Middle School.
“If we get teachers’ awareness to increase, it will transform the whole culture of the school,” said Jody. “The awareness will directly affect students. It affects what they’re learning, how they interact with teachers, and how they learn to interact with each other.”
Goshen Middle School’s 7th Grade Assistant Principal Lisa Herschberger, who before landing her current position worked as a Master Teacher for five years, has been working with Gilberto and Jody to build “cultural responsiveness” within the school. Lisa organizes small groups where teachers can discuss topics and issues surrounding diversity. The idea is to build teachers’ awareness of students’ backgrounds, encourage them to listen to students’ need, and to provide support.
“We’re trying to really, really know our students and how they learn and where they’re coming from,” said Lisa. “Not just where they’re coming from geographically, but just who they are and how they operate.”
As much as cultural responsiveness benefits students, the training is, in many ways, about putting teachers and administrators back into the role of students.
“By becoming the learners, we acknowledge that we need more knowledge if we want to be better, to serve better,” said Gilberto.
Gilberto and his team are working to increase cultural awareness of all students. This means taking into consideration that each and every student, regardless of skin color or ethnicity, brings a completely unique set of characteristics into the classroom.
“The school system is asking the right questions,” said Gilberto. “They’re asking, ‘How do we become more responsive to students?’ and ‘How to be more culturally aware?’ They may not know the answers yet, that’s to be revealed, but they’re opening up the conversation.”
A school that reflects the nation’s ‘wealth of diversity’
Luckily, the future of the program is brimming with potential. Not only will the existing partnership continue into 2017, Gilberto and his team hope to offer GCS administrators an opportunity to complete the Cultural Intelligence Assessment, which trains educators on how to be aware when working across a variety of cultural contexts. From then on, teachers within the school could lead trainings.
As administrators and teachers become more culturally responsive, students will inevitably reap the benefits. However, GCS students are people who have grown up playing on the same playgrounds, learning in the same classrooms, and forming lifelong friendships with peers of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. To many of them, welcoming diversity is second nature.
“As I have observed GCS students over the years, it seems that most of them don’t see differences,” said Lori Martin, executive assistant to GCS Superintendent Diane Woodworth. “They simply see their friends and classmates.”
“Our country is a wonderful, random assortment of people living and working together,” Martin continued. “And, much like our country, our schools reflect the same wealth of diversity. I am thankful to work in a place that values a diverse community of students, families, and employees.”
Thanks to the hard work of teachers and administrators at Goshen Community Schools, students are learning one of the most important lessons of all: You can always benefit from learning from other people –– especially when they’re different from you.
“To us, it makes no difference if your family has been in our community for generations, or if your family is new to our community.”
“We want educational leadership to understand the different ways students work, their cultures, and how they make decisions.”
“I am thankful to work in a place that values a diverse community of students, families, and employees.”
Good of Goshen Editor • Liz Shenk
Good of Goshen Photography • Ashley Ganger, Lynne Zehr