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Cornell professor leads study of culture clash at Iowa school

Research aims to help schools deal with differences

Jill Heinrich, an education professor at Cornell College, leads a recent class at the school. Heinrich is author of the
Jill Heinrich, an education professor at Cornell College, leads a recent class at the school. Heinrich is author of the study, “When cultures clash: the story of one school’s journey from acculturation to understanding,” that was published in March in the academic journal Educational Review. (Supplied photo)
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If state projections hold true, Iowa school districts are going to become increasingly diverse — making especially relevant a Cornell College professor’s examination of a local school’s struggle to address cultural clashes.

Education professor Jill Heinrich’s study, “When cultures clash: the story of one school’s journey from acculturation to understanding,” was published in March in the academic journal Educational Review.

Her research, which she hopes will guide schools and educators through similar situations in the future, chronicles a story that began in 2000 at a junior high of about 700 students in an Eastern Iowa university town of about 72,000.

While that description points to a school in Iowa City. Heinrich had agreed to keep the school’s name and the identities of its administrators private in conducting her research.

The school, which had long boasted an ideology of diversity and inclusion, found itself thrust into a novel experience with urban and generational poverty when it received a first wave of in-migration from Chicago tied to the federal HOPE VI initiative.

That legislation aimed to decentralize poverty by relocating urban poor families from major metropolitan regions to smaller communities — specifically through demolition, modernization and redevelopment of public housing.

In 2000, according to Heinrich’s research, HOPE VI led to the demolition of 16,000 public housing units in Chicago, with only 30 percent being replaced. The Iowa junior high at the center of Heinrich’s study “proved a viable relocation option because it was in a neighboring state that had Section 8 housing available.”

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Because the Section 8 housing was located almost entirely in one part of the community, the junior high was “overwhelmed by events over which it had little cognizance or understanding.” The percent of its students qualifying for free and reduced-priced lunches more than doubled from 15.6 percent in 2000 to nearly 40 percent by 2013, exemplifying the population shift, according to Heinrich.

“In-migration had caused (the school) to change almost overnight, and its teachers and administration had no idea how to accommodate the very different academic, social, and personal needs of these new students,” the study said.

Through years of interviews and analysis, Heinrich pinpointed several key issues that stressed the school’s social, academic and operational infrastructure.

First, new students struggled with timeliness, resulting in excessive tardiness.

Additionally, some were “very violent,” leaving educators with few options under their no-tolerance policy.

And the new students seemed to display a lack of respect in hallways and how they addressed adults. Teachers and administrators expended extensive time and energy trying to correct the behavior through the traditional avenues of detention, Saturday school and even suspension.

“We weren’t trying to be disrespectful, but only wanted to do what we thought was best for these students,” the school’s principal told Heinrich, according to the research paper.

The fixing didn’t work, though, and administrators eventually realized they were operating under the assumption that “they need to be like us.” When the educators reframed their thinking and turned their focus to relationship building, they began to understand the root of the behavior, according to Heinrich.

“Faculty began to see that the attitudes and behaviors they had once considered so ‘inappropriate’ and ‘insolent’ were rarely intended as such,” the study said.

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The staff and administration discovered, for example, many of the new students had not had to change between classes in their old schools — meaning rushing through passing periods was new to them.

“They brought wisdom to us,” the principal told Heinrich, according to the study. “Wisdom came from failure, some successes, not being afraid to ask questions and ask for help … to understand this is bigger than us.”

The school’s recalibrated response involved, among other things, an assessment of current resources; the addition of an at-risk teacher and “dropout funds” for a second position; and the establishment of a Welcome & Success Center aimed at acclimating in-migration students and providing ongoing support.

The center created space to establish mentor relationships, discuss school rules, communicate expectations and impart academic help.

The school today continues to experience in-migration, and Heinrich reports the structures in place have made it capable of more smoothly addressing the issues.

“Administration, teachers and students have learned the importance of recognizing and respecting cultural difference so that it no longer functions as a source of conflict and division but rather as an impetus for change,” according to Heinrich. “I would argue that there is much, then, for teachers, administrators and policymakers to learn from (the school’s) story.”

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