WELLMAN — The thing that surprised Altynai Kabylebekoua most about Iowa when she came from her mountainous rural community in Kyrgyzstan was the cornfields.
“I’m a big fan of country movies and I love cornfields because they seem really romantic,” she said. “I will miss American farms and cornfields.”
She mentioned this during her presention to the Mid-Prairie Community School District’s Board on Monday, April 8. Her slide show documented her experience coming to the U.S. and going to school in the district; fellow international student, Nurhaluiza Siti, of Indonesia, gave a similar presentation. The two have also been giving their presentations across classes and grades in the district thanks to the Culture and Diversity Committee, which was formed at the start of the school year to expand students’ global understanding.
“We’ve had international students come and present (to the board) before, but this is the first time we’ve actually had them go and really made a concerted effort to get them through the entire district,” said Nicholas O’Brien, the district’s English Language Learners (ELL) teacher who also heads up the Culture and Diversity Committee.
The goal of the committee is to broaden the intercultural experiences of students. It was formed as a result of superintendent Mark Schneider wanting to bring staff together to think on how to address diversity and equity throughout the district.
The committee is only taking its first steps in making the district more inclusive. Small things like rewording language in staff handbooks to make it more inclusive and replacing schools signs with some that are more accessible to minorities.
“We’ve done team teaching activities where we’ve taught multicultural and multiethnic view points within certain classes and lessons,” said O’Brien.
One example of this team teaching meant working with the middle school Agricultural Teacher Jeff Foster to teach not only how agricultural issues affect Iowa, but their impact globally.
The group, made up of ten district employees, is in the process of planning an all day professional development program for all staff members at some point in 2019. This training will include speakers from United Action for Youth and groups helping with implicate bias training.
Having the two international students attending the districts high school is another early step in getting other students to be versed in other cultures and points of view.
Siti and Kabylebekoua presented slideshows exhibiting their experiences coming to the U.S. for the year. Both girls have done their presentations throughout the district class by class as a way of informing other students about their experiences.
The presentation is part of the required curriculum for international students in the district, O’Brien believes that having the pair present to students outside of the board and their immediate peers broadens the cultural exposure of students within the district.
“The kids themselves are always very welcoming and always have really great questions,” said O’Brien. “I think for them it’s a really eye opening experience.”
The committee doesn’t currently have anything big planned for the rest of the school year. O’Brien said their focus currently is on the small things, like getting staff to think and behave more inclusively. The biggest event they have in the works in the professional development program. O’Brien hopes that these details will help their new group lay groundwork for more impactful things going forward.
While Mid-Prairie is not incredibly diverse compared to surrounding areas like Washington and Iowa City, O’Brien thinks the district is more textured than people realize. The district has been seeing steady growth over the past five years, and with increased student population comes increased diversity.
“Iowa as a whole is growing more diverse,” he said. “One of the things we pride ourselves on is preparing our students. Globalization, cross cultural communication, these are things that are going to happen regardless. Giving (students) those experiences now will strengthen those interaction in the future.”