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Educators look for help making the most of cultural differences

New York University's Metropolitan Center for Urban Education held a training about boosting diversity and cultural responsiveness in the classroom last week. If Wes Edwards had his way, the middle-school teacher would regularly invite parents into the classroom to help bridge the language divide between his Spanish-speaking students and educators. More than 90 percent of students at his Washington Heights charter school, New Heights Academy, speak Spanish at home. But only about a third of the staff speaks Spanish, Edwards estimates — leading to communication problems among students, parents, and teachers. "In order to really have support in the classroom and from families, you need to have translation for everything. Parents need to feel comfortable speaking Spanish," Edwards said, adding that he understands just enough Spanish from growing up in Texas to speak to his students' parents. Edwards said he thought the language barriers contributed to low test scores for students like his because they cannot always get help from their parents, who often barely speak English. He said he also thought his students often feel disconnected from what they study in school. Edwards said he would like to use his students' language challenges and cultural heritages as assets, rather than see them as challenges, but he wasn't sure how to. He hoped he would find answers last week at a daylong conference on how to incorporate lessons on diversity and cultural sensitivity into the classroom. The conference, organized by New York University Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, drew nearly 300 educators from across the city and state for speeches, panel discussions, and workshops.