School Climate & Safety Opinion

Taking K-12 Cultural Responsiveness from Theory into Practice

By Contributing Blogger — August 16, 2018 5 min read
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By Holly Morris, Director of School Incubation at Washington State Charter Schools Association


There’s a lot of talk about ‘culturally responsive’ pedagogy lately. But just how--and where--is this theory being put into practice?

In Washington state, the evolving charter public school space offers a promising example. The State of Washington has baked the term into almost every aspect of its rigorous charter public school application, in an effort to create a charter sector that is truly community-driven and focused on serving underserved students.

In June, the Washington State Charter School Commission authorized the charter of Ashé Prep (pronounced a-SHAY), a K-8 school with cultural responsiveness named as one of its three core design concepts. The school will open to serve primarily African and African American children in Skyway, Washington, in August 2019.

Let that sink in. Naming ‘cultural responsiveness’ as a core element of Ashé's educational program means that when the Washington State Charter School Commission evaluates this school’s performance, it will be graded on how well they do at understanding and responding in a culturally appropriate way to enrolled students and their families.

Dr. Debra Sullivan, school founder and author of Cultivating the Genius of Black Children, and Monique Harrison Manuel, a seasoned administrator from traditional public schools, will bring this to life by aligning the key decisions for the school--from operations to academics--to the principles of Nguzu Saba--the seven principles of African Heritage upon which the winter holiday Kwanzaa is based. The principles are: unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and conviction/belief.

Specificity and Inclusion Are Synergistic

These principles are also conceptually aligned and similar to the cultures of non-African students likely to attend Ashé Prep; as a charter public school, Ashé Prep is open to any student who wants to attend. Skyway, the community where Ashé Prep will be located, is an un-incorporated area of King County, nestled between south Seattle and the neighboring city of Renton. It is quite racially diverse, with African American and Asian residents making up the majority.

Location demographics being what they are, it’s likely that a majority of Ashé Prep’s students will be African, African American, Asian or two or more races. As many of these cultures are also strongly rooted in community, conviction and belief, and a sense of individual responsibility in service of the collective, the school’s values will likely resonate with many families from the broader Skyway community.

How does that translate into a school environment? In many ways! For example, the values of collective responsibility and self-determination guided Sullivan’s decision to have students in all grades engage in community-based projects and studies that gradually expand their circle of attention and influence. This experience begins in Kindergarten with projects focused on My Neighborhood and culminates with projects focused on My World in Grade 8.

It’s also expressed in the personalized learning choices that the school has adopted. Each child will have a personal learning plan that includes a chance to decide how to practice their own skill-building. Students also actively participate as members of ‘ujima’ teams (ujima is Swahili for collective responsibility). Ujima teams are modeled after Achievement First Greenfield Schools’ Dream Teams, and include a student’s teacher, a family member, a community member, and a peer, who collectively offer each student a mini support community.

Another interesting expression of collective responsibility is found in the school’s discipline policy. Ashé Prep has put forward a ‘belonging policy’ on the belief that communally-based cultures do not plan for their members to be removed or excluded; they do what it takes to keep the community whole, complete and inclusive, even when the rules have been violated. And while the school’s policy conforms to state law on discipline, reserving suspension and expulsion as rare but legal options, its bedrock is a statement about belonging and its first response to rule violations is restorative justice interventions.

How Shared Values Will Be Incorporated and Celebrated

Similarly, the cultural value around respect for elders--which is strong in both cultures for likely-to-attend students--drove the decision to create a Council of Elders. More than the typical Parent-Teacher Association, this body will bring longtime members of the Skyway community together, including area education activists and advocates for local children and youth, in order to provide a different kind of public accountability--one that goes beyond test scores to reach important social-emotional outcomes for kids, and one that demands administrators’ fidelity to the school’s values and mission stated in its charter.

Like other leaders in the Washington charter sector, Sullivan and Manuel are deeply committed to ensuring that their staff reflects the full diversity of their community. They are keenly aware of the powerful impact a diverse teaching and leadership staff can have on the psyche, aspirations and attitudes of all students. They have detailed concrete plans for recruiting, combining their community networks and connections to minority-serving and HBCU colleges, with a willingness to embrace alternative certifications that will likely result in a more diverse teaching staff. While not fully aligned with their student population, Washington’s charter public schools have more significantly more racially representative staffing overall than their traditional public school counterparts.

Between now and fall 2019 when Ashé Prep will welcome students, there are many months of preparation as they engage families and the Skyway community. On that note, stay tuned! I look forward to bringing you an update as the school builds its staff, enrolls its founding students, and gets closer to its official launch.


CORRECTION: The original version of this post included an incorrect opening date for Ashé Prep. The correct date is August 2019.

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