The continuing quest for inclusion

Cathryn Newbery speaks to IB World Schools who are tackling diversity issues in an authentic, locally focused way

Nearly 50 years ago, US Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote that “[Our] future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth ‘out of a multitude of tongues’.” 

How far have we progressed since then? Issues surrounding diversity and inclusion frame many global conflicts and problems; think of religious-based violence in Syria and Iraq, the quest for gay rights in Russia, and tribal power struggles in the Central African Republic.

Arguably the need for classrooms to expose students to others who are different from themselves, and teach them to embrace diverse societies, has never been more critical than it is now. “Diversity and inclusion aren’t about painting schools in Africa,” says Chief Academic Office Judith Fabian. “They’re about creating lasting understandings about what divides us and brings us together.”

To achieve this, a school community has to do more than integrate global ideas, issues and cultures into everyday teaching, or to create a student cohort that has the ‘required’ mix of ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds. Creating a truly inclusive school environment requires fundamental changes to its ethos and teaching and learning practices.

Overcoming divisions

“It’s educators’ responsibility to open students’ eyes to the positive reality of the culturally and ethnically diverse world,” says Fabian. “Once students realize this, and have formed positive attitudes towards others in the local and global communities, it’s difficult for this perspective to be reversed.”

Rhonda Broussard, Founder and President of the St Louis Language Immersion Schools (SLLIS), Missouri, USA, knows all about the need for positive attitudes. “Every day, most of the folks in our region wake up in pretty segregated communities,” she says. “They take on messages and beliefs from a lifetime in those communities.” SLLIS’ mission is to override these negative messages, and prevent the tensions that result from such preconceptions.

“Our schools are deliberately a totally different environment,” says Broussard. “It’s a diverse experience, linguistically, ethnically and culturally. We want our students, teachers and families to believe this environment is the real world – not the divided world where they wake up every day.” The four schools, where students are taught one of three immersion languages (French, Spanish or Chinese), have students from several districts and a variety of ethnic backgrounds. And it’s not affluent families who are the main beneficiaries: around 60 per cent qualify for free school lunches.

“Diversity and language learning are about shaping friendships,” says Broussard. “Simply put, our kids are friendly.” This attitude is benefiting the local community, too, explains Broussard. “A student in the Spanish School lives in the Mexican district of the city with her family, who aren’t native Spanish speakers.

One day, they were out in the neighbourhood and a man came over to them, clearly asking for help, but they didn’t understand what he needed. The student translated for him and they went to help fix his machine. “In the same situation with a different child, the family may have seen this man as a threat,” says Broussard. “But this child thought: ‘He’s my friend. I have positive relationships with people who speak these languages and share his culture.’”

Deliberate inclusion

The United World Colleges (UWC) movement was also founded – against the backdrop of the Cold War – with the explicit ambition of bringing together people who wouldn’t normally meet. More than 50 years later, Executive Director Keith Clark says this mission is more important that ever.

“We’re seeking not only to have an impact on the students from different backgrounds, but everybody in the community who will understand the nature of tension, conflict and diversity,” he says. Students are handpicked to attend UWC schools via a network of national committees, which operate in 146 countries.

“We work hard to create ‘deliberate diversity’ in the broadest possible sense,” says Clark. “Not only national diversity but also gender, religion, ethnicity and, increasingly, socioeconomic diversity – which we realized we weren’t doing enough to promote.” UWC is now using its scholarship funds to “recognize that tensions in the world today are as much within nations and societies as between them.”

Clark cites a new pilot where 21 pairs of students have been selected to represent two sides of an explicit divide. “We are moving beyond our normal understanding of diversity, and trying to drill down into tensions within societies.” Clark is excited about the potential benefits of these pairings, but is wary that these won’t be felt “until these students get in the context of a broader community. It’s important that everyone sees the benefit.”

Making a difference

However, you don’t need the backing of a global network to make an impact on inclusion; small efforts can make a difference. Students at John Adams High School, Indiana, US, have connected with members of the local Amish community, who have strong religious beliefs and reject modern conveniences in favour of a more traditional lifestyle – a world away from the school’s home in inner-city South Bend.

“Last year our students visited an Amish farm and school, and we were delighted when a group of Amish children wanted to visit our high school this year,” says IB Coordinator Dr Mika Roinila. “My highlight was seeing their curiosity in our school and culture,” says student Alyssa Joyce. “I had forgotten how truly different their lives are from ours, and their visit must have given them a new view of our culture.”

Hidden dangers

While this cultural exchange was positive, there are students who live in daily fear of discrimination. 2011 research from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reports 64 per cent of US lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, 82 per cent of these students had been verbally harassed, and 38 per cent had been physically assaulted.

“Ignoring issues around sexual orientation, and failing to make a safe space for LGBT students and their allies – especially in high schools – is dangerous,” says Josefino Rivera, teacher and Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) founder at Bonn International School, Germany. Tackling this is tough because many of the difficulties surrounding LGBT acceptance are ingrained in cultural norms.

“Most people don’t even notice the hetero-normative biases that permeate society,” says Rivera. Combating this requires a cultural change, both in schools and society at large, reflects Rivera. But even the smallest steps can go a long way to making a big difference. “We recently held an Ally Week, where LGBT issues were brought to the forefront of all areas of the curriculum,” he says.

“We showcased LGBT media in a library display and used speeches from activist Harvey Milk in one unit of inquiry.” Gaining support from staff and parents is critical to making a safe environment for LGBT students. “The Principal actively asked me to start a GSA, but that didn’t prevent a negative reaction from some parents,” says Rivera.

“Some threatened to remove their students from the school if the GSA went ahead. This resistance was particularly evident among families with deeply held religious beliefs. For me, this just emphasized why it was so critical that we create a safe space on campus where students could freely discuss LGBT issues.”

Education for all

Staff at Broadgreen International School, Liverpool, UK, have worked hard to create an environment that empowers students who don’t match the typical IB student profile to raise their academic aspirations.

The school not only has students from 42 countries who speak 24 languages, but 57 per cent are eligible for free school meals (more than three times the UK national average). It also teaches a number of deaf, disabled and autistic students within its mainstream classes.

“A number of our local students have never been to the UK’s capital, London [220 miles away], let alone abroad,” says Martina Hedges, IB Coordinator. “Whereas their peers from international backgrounds speak English as their second or third language and are well travelled. That mix has created a totally different ethos at the school.” However, says Hedges, “diversity isn’t all about international students. It’s about getting in touch with your local community.”

The school works closely with ex-patriots from south India, leading to five trips to the region. “One of our autistic students benefitted enormously from the last trip. His confidence grew hugely as he taught classes at a local school.” Mutuelle d’Etudes Secondaires (MES) in Geneva, Switzerland, is a safe haven for another group of students: those who have experienced problems in other education systems.

“Being rejected by a traditional school system doesn’t necessarily mean that these students are ‘difficult’,” says Principal Michel Dubret. “It might be that these systems weren’t appropriate.” The faculty at MES favour “non-conventional” personalized teaching, as well as an emphasis on artistic subjects.

With around 80 students, and 10 teachers, there is much scope for one-to-one tuition and development. “Our students know they will be supported throughout their studies,” says Dubret. “We try to establish balanced relationships that encourage students to be adaptable and autonomous.”

Addressing difference

At King Fahad Academy, London, UK, religion is the binding factor for students: it is the country’s only Islamic IB World School. However, it still actively embraces diversity. “London is one of the world’s most diverse cities: our school is surrounded by people with a multicultural outlook,” says Head of Girls’ Upper School Bayan Mahmood.

“There is a vibrant interaction of cultures, and a large number of languages spoken. We embrace this and aspire to do more to strengthen it in our community.” Even in this atmosphere, staff must still be explicit about inclusion. “The backgrounds of new IB Diploma Programme students can present challenges.

A significant number come to us from abroad, often from schools that don’t explicitly discuss and address inclusion.” But, with hard work from the faculty, Mahmood says it “is possible to create and support functional inclusion. Schools should not limit inclusion to merely superficial appendages – single or half-day events. It must be part of every stage of the planning, teaching and learning processes.”

Fabian agrees that all efforts to foster diversity and inclusion must be authentic if they are to succeed. “Former IB Director General George Walker once cited the five tokenistic ‘Fs’ of diversity: flag-waving, festivals, food, famous people and fashion,” she says. “We have to go beyond that. We need to encourage students to develop the skills and behaviours that will lead to long-term understanding of our similarities and differences.”