As the warm sunlight filtered through the trees on Oct. 20 at Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, NC, the fun was heating up for the children, parents, teachers and community members who swarmed the campus to participate in the school’s first Festival of Cultures.
By 5:15 p.m., when the event started, many of the attendees had picked up “festival passports” enabling them to cross six international borders spread out on school grounds. What they encountered was a variety of food, music, crafts, games, and storytelling from Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Mexico, Central America and the United States.
“It was terrific,” says Mary Beth Lindquist, one of 35 Oak Hill faculty and education support professionals (ESPs) who helped stage the event. “The festival is part of building a true community at Oak Hill.”
School staff stationed at the destination stops invited the more than 150 “travelers” – as they were called – to taste everything from naan, chutney, and black current juice, to fried plantains, dried fruits, fortune cookies, salsa and tortillas. The crowd’s enthusiasm remained high until way past 7 p.m., the official close of the evening’s festivities.
“We have a very diverse population at Oak Hill,” says Lindquist, the festival’s chief coordinator. “Given the academic rigor of our school day, there’s not significant time to learn about each other’s cultures.”
Many of Oak Hill’s students and parents are immigrants who speak a combined 17 languages and emanate from Latin American, Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
“The significance of the fair is that it is an opportunity for the school to host an activity that allows school staff to learn more about and honor the students and their families’ cultures,” says Denise Alston, an analyst and trainer with the National Education Association (NEA) Priority Schools Campaign who helped coordinate funding for the event. “It also allows the community to share their culture and experiences.”
Oak Hill is located in a high poverty area where 98 percent of students receive a free breakfast and low-and-reduced lunch. The school is included in NEA’s Priority School Campaign, which is working with school officials and the Guilford County Association of Educators (GCAE) to provide staff training at Oak Hill.
The idea for the festival occurred at one such training sponsored by NEA and the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE).
Last June, Oak Hill faculty, including several GCAE members who are building leaders at the school, participated in a two-day C.A.R.E. (Strategies for Closing Achievement Gaps) training, which provides specialized instruction to enhance the skills of teachers to help minority and low-income students.
The training helps educators reflect on the causes of disparity in student achievement and explore ways to improve academic success by using innovative, research-based instructional strategies. By focusing on the themes of cultural, economic and language differences; unrecognized and undeveloped abilities; the power of resilience; and the importance of effort and motivation, the C.A.R.E. Guide advances the idea that if educators view these qualities of students as strengths, rather than deficits, they can be successful in closing achievement gaps.
“They (faculty) felt they needed some new strategies for engaging the culturally and linguistically diverse students in their school community,” says Alston, who provided the training. “During the training, I mentioned that another NEA Priority School (Glendale Middle School in Salt Lake City) had successfully held a multicultural festival that celebrates their community.”
When Lindquist, one of the trainees, heard Alston mention the Glendale festival, she told the group the project could work at Oak Hill. This was the festival’s unofficial kick-off point.
“It’s important that our students know that we (school staff) value their culture and that we can all learn from each other,” Lindquist says. “We become a stronger community when what we view as different, becomes a little more familiar.”
When NCAE officials in Raleigh learned about the festival project, they contributed $1,200 through a comprehensive grant targeted for Priority Schools. A large portion of the funding went toward purchasing packaged food from Super G Mart International Foods and Salaga African market in Greensboro. The festival is one of many new activities and projects initiated by the school after receiving a $2.9 million School Improvement Grant over three years.
“They’re continuing to improve every day,” says Elizabeth Foster, GCAE president and one of the project’s original planners. “They’re trying to reflect their diverse community in creative and productive ways.”
Alston sees another benefit to the multicultural festival: “The new knowledge that the school staff gathers can be built upon in their lessons in the classroom.”