Celebrating Diversity at Mary Mcleod Bethune Day Academy

When you enter Mary Mcleod Bethune Day Academy you’ll be greeted by flags from all over the world lining the main hallway. The school has a flag for every student and staff member’s country.

Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy is a public charter school for kindergarten through 8th grade students in Washington D.C. Principal, Jubria Lewis, and the rest of the community has made diversity appreciation a priority at the school. As a matter of fact, the schools mission statement reads as follows:

“The mission of the Mary McLeod Bethune Day Academy Public Charter School is to implement a high performing day school that provides a challenging academic program in a supportive, parentally involved, and diverse learning environment to enable each student to achieve academic success, talent, and positive social development.”

The school’s curriculum is already successful in exposing students to diverse perspectives and a variety of cultures. Students in primary grade levels (preK to second grade) are enrolled in a half day language immersion program. All students are exposed to diverse texts and an effort has been made to fill each classroom library with books from a variety of cultures and in a variety of languages. The school is also currently in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program school.

Mr. Lewis explains that even with the robust curriculum the school currently offers, Mary McLeod strives to extend their curriculum “in order to ground our students in becoming global minded students and citizens.” In order to do that, he knows the students must “be thoughtful and challenge themselves to understand the perspectives of people from different backgrounds and cultures.” That’s why the school has implemented a number of programs and initiatives outside of the day-to-day curriculum to celebrate diversity on a school wide level.

Build a Diverse Team

The administration and staff strive to build a diverse environment for their young people. Despite what the demographics may be in a particular area, the students and staff still celebrate all different cultures and backgrounds. Part of ensuring they are committed to this goal means having staff members who also come from a variety of cultures or backgrounds. For this reason, when administrators are looking for teaching candidates they make sure to cast their net wide in an effort to recruit great talent and ensure that they are reaching a diverse candidate pool. Currently, fifteen different countries are represented within Mary McLeod’s staff, including: China, the Philippines, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, and Pakistan as well as many countries within Latin and South America. Teachers are encourage to integrate their culture into the work that they do each day.

Host an Annual International Festival

Each year, Mary McLeod staff and community members host an annual International Festival. The event looks different every year, which keeps it fresh and exciting for students and family members. One year, the theme was “Taste of DC” and the event centered around food from the variety of cultures within their school community. Another year, each classroom was decorated and contained artifacts from a particular country - attendees were able to travel around the classrooms with their “passports.” Last year, the festival was a carnival theme and involved a large parade. The event is something the entire community really looks forward to and gets involved in. Students complete in-depth research and participate in challenges or contests leading up to the event. The research focuses on the history of different countries and the challenges they had to overcome. For the carnival theme last year, students used their research to create costumes, masks and banners that they then used in the parade.

Celebrate Heritage Months

Students and staff at Mary McLeod also celebrate the many different heritage months that take place throughout the school year. Two of these include: Hispanic Heritage Month which takes place from September 15 to October 15 and African American History Month, which is being celebrated now (February). The entire school gets involved in these month long celebrations. Facts and questions are announced over the PA system each day as a part of the morning announcements. The school also hangs pictures of iconic figures throughout the hallways. Each classroom is responsible for developing a presentation surrounding a topic pertinent to the month - these presentations might include plays, skits and songs. At the end of the month, the school hosts a large celebration and invites community members and families to participate. Students share their presentations and enjoy food specific to that culture.

Implement Social Emotional Learning Programs & Initiatives

Mary McLeod has also prioritized social and emotional learning, which is closely linked to diversity appreciation. Social emotional learning helps students develop empathy and compassion for others, teaches them how to effectively communicate, and helps them to resolve conflict in appropriate, respectful ways. Overall, social emotional learning creates a safe learning environment, in which students are able to feel comfortable expressing themselves. Mr. Lewis recognizes the fact that there is no “one size fits all” social emotional learning program. His students are getting a very robust and comprehensive way to strengthen their social emotional wellbeing, based off the myriad of programs Mary McLeod has implemented, including: Move This World, Character First and the character curriculum included within the IB Program.

Offering students several options for addressing their emotions has been particularly important at Mary McLeod because of the extremely diverse population. In many situations, a students culture is impacting either the stressors they feel or how they choose to manage these stressors. Students now have concrete steps to manage their emotions as well as an understanding of the social context surrounding some of these emotions.

Celebrating Diversity in Your School

If you’d like to better celebrate diversity within your own school community, Mr. Lewis suggests starting with a needs assessment first. Ask yourself: what are the needs of students, staff members and families? What can be done directly in the classroom? What can be scaled into a school-wide event? How do people want to be recognized? What will help people feel respected, valued and celebrated?

After you’ve identified what your individual school community needs, start small. Try to do one small initiative each month. Mary McLeod started with African American History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. Next month, they’ll add Women’s History Month and are making plans to celebrate gender diversity.