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W.Va. schools adding cultural studies

August 29, 1998|By DAVE McMILLION

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Arctic explorer Robert Edwin Peary is often the one credited for being the first person to reach the North Pole, but Taylor Perry said many school students don't realize there was another important player in the discovery.

In fact, Peary could not complete the trip because of frostbite, and it was Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer in Peary's group, who made it to the North Pole, Perry said.

That is the type of story school officials hope to emphasize more in Eastern Panhandle public schools through multicultural education efforts, according to officials like Perry, director of pupil services for Berkeley County Schools.

School officials in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties said efforts are under way to emphasize the study of different cultures in the classroom and help teachers become more aware of prejudices.

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Perry said the public would be surprised by the number of teachers that still use racial slurs.

"They slip, but it does happen," Perry said.

While there might be more to learn about different cultures, Perry said he is finding students want to know.

At Martinsburg, Hedgesville and Musselman high schools, students are offered an elective multicultural class to learn about different cultures. The class has been especially popular at Musselman, where three are offered.

"Each one of the high schools doesn't have a problem filling them," Perry said.

For teachers, Berkeley County school officials offer a class to help them include more studies about different cultures. The class also stresses that teachers need to be sensitive to all students and holidays recognizing minority leaders.

In Jefferson County, W.Va., school officials just adopted a cultural diversity plan that looks at many aspects, such as hiring more minority teachers, developing a curriculum that reflects ethnic diversity, encouraging the community to get involved in creating a culturally inclusive school environment, and providing ongoing cultural diversity training in the school system.

School systems are required to have regular multicultural awareness training, but there was "no vehicle" in place to do it in Jefferson County, said Henry Thomas, the cultural diversity facilitator for Jefferson County Schools.

To begin the process, the school system has enlisted The Naylor Group, a consulting service in Shepherdstown, W.Va., to offer diversity training to service personnel and teachers. The classes cover issues such as common prejudices against different races and gender groups, Thomas said.

School officials in Jefferson and Berkeley counties are focusing on hiring more minority teachers. Thomas said it is important to have enough minority teachers in classes that can be role models to minority students.

About 5 percent of the school staff in Jefferson County are minorities, while the student minority population is about 11 percent, Thomas said.

Thomas said one of the problems that has traditionally plagued the school system in attracting minority teachers is that many college students do not realize the Eastern Panhandle exists. When local school officials go to colleges to talk to students about working in West Virginia, most students think of coal mines, Thomas said.

"They're not really exposed to the Eastern Panhandle," said Thomas, who wants to see more aggressive marketing of the Panhandle.

In Morgan County, there are multicultural activies during the year, said Janet Goodhand, director of elementary education. School officials also look for textbooks that represent all cultures and interpret them in the best light, she said.

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