by ALEXANDRA RETTER
It has been about one year since a call to hire counselors and liaisons of color arose at a demonstration to protest alleged racism at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS). A number of proposals to create a cultural liaison position have followed, but one has not yet been established. The most recent proposal comes from some WAPS students. In the proposal, they call for cultural liaisons who would support students and families of color. They also picture the liaisons as a resource for students who are not underserved to learn more about underrepresented communities. Additionally, they envision the liaisons making up a whole student support system.
This is the second proposal for a liaison this year. A group of staff, students and community members who analyzed the district’s student support services, such as counseling and social work, recommended that WAPS establish cultural liaison positions. The district’s Diversity and Equity Committee and several School Board members brought forward cultural liaison proposals last year, as well. There are no definite plans to fund a cultural liaison in the 2021-2022 budget as yet. Instead, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said, in a May interview with the Winona Post and at the School Board’s June 3 meeting, that she hopes to fund such a position as part of a plan for using federal COVID relief funding over three years.
Senior Student School Board Representative Issara Schmidt, a senior at Winona Senior High School (WSHS) who led the way with developing the proposal, said she wants the district to develop a concrete plan with actionable steps for putting COVID funding toward cultural liaison positions. “Because I keep hearing that we’re seeing progress, and students of color are being assisted, and I’m a student of color, and I’m getting no assistance. And knowing students of color, they’re not getting assistance,” she said.
Schmidt sent the proposal to School Board members and Freiheit in late March with the goal of it becoming an item on the board’s agenda before finalizing next year’s budget by the end of June. The Winona Post received a copy of the proposal through a public data request.
The proposal calls for the district to establish a cultural liaison position for the 2021-2022 school year and add more cultural liaison positions over the following few years to create an entire student support system. The proposal also calls on WAPS to develop a support network for the liaison positions, such as equity committees at each school building. The proposal notes that the district could create liaison positions for the special education and LGBTQ communities in the future. The proposal also states that responsibilities of the liaisons could potentially be spread among various current district positions. “So this could be the beginning of a support network for a lot of minority students or students that want education on topics like that,” Schmidt said. “And I guess my biggest approach was that we’d always looked at a cultural liaison position that only spoke to the minorities, so only 20 percent of our students. And I wanted something that would capture 80 percent of the student body. So if they had questions, whether they were a minority or not, that’s where they could go, that’s a network they could use.”
Schmidt hopes for a cultural liaison to be a person of color. “I don’t know that there’s any way this person can really execute that job well without some lived experiences,” she said. She continued, “So I think it’s really important to have a well-educated team behind figuring out who this person is going to be. And maybe it’s a committee. But having people of color on that committee, obviously.”
Schmidt said she is agreeable to cultural liaison work being completed by current district staff, so long as they fully fulfill the goals of the position.
Freiheit said in an email that she appreciates the students’ work and feels they did a great job completing research. “They offered [a] student perspective, which is important as we continue to address equity within our school district,” she said.
Why a cultural liaison?
As the reasoning behind why the position is needed, the proposal includes research about cultural liaisons in other Minnesota school districts, perspectives on the position from some WAPS students, staff members, and community members, in addition to data about discipline by race at WSHS, which show a disparity in discipline rates between students of color and their white peers. The Winona Post recently analyzed the district’s discipline rates and found Black students were suspended at seven times the rate their white peers were in 2019-2020. That disparity has remained much the same over the course of a three-year agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to reduce discipline disparities. “I feel like that’s a really obvious telling tale of how much we need this,” Schmidt said. “And I think that was one of my biggest ‘wow’ moments throughout this whole thing. Yes, we talked to people, but also just crunching the numbers, you can just see how obvious this is that we’ve had unfair treatment of Black students and minority students.”
Schmidt said cultural liaison positions could potentially help reverse the district’s declining enrollment by providing students who are not students of color with a way to gain cultural competency, as is a goal of the existing, popular Rios Spanish Immersion Program.
Fellow students’ stories about instances in which they felt discriminated against at WAPS also inspired Schmidt to create the proposal. “Hearing those stories, I think, became the motivation, because I felt like, ‘I have to do this justice now. I can’t stand here, have all this information, hear all these stories, and not do anything about it,’” she said.
For Schmidt, speaking with staff members and students was a part of developing the proposal that stuck with her. She was glad to discover that some staff members were eager to share their views, and she found it difficult but necessary to hear students’ stories. “I think it almost warrants a feeling of, okay, we’ve done student protests, we’ve walked out against racism within institutions, we’ve spoke out to the school, and they’ve still done nothing,” she said. “You’ve heard these stories. You’ve still done nothing.”
As part of communicating with fellow students while developing the proposal, Schmidt received a comment from a student who did not agree with hiring a person of color to serve students of color. Schmidt said that in the report, she made sure to include different perspectives, including that of not supporting the district hiring a person of color to serve as a cultural liaison. In response to those with that viewpoint, Schmidt said, “I don’t know how we can address the struggles of students of color without having it be a person of color. Maybe education can supplement that. I mean, that’s to be seen, I guess. And those who say it’s not necessary, I think they’re kind of ignoring a whole student population.”
Funding the position
In the past, some School Board members have raised concerns about budgeting for a cultural liaison position. Schmidt said she feels the district has enough funds to establish the position. “I sit there, and it doesn’t take complex math to realize we do have pockets of money here and there that if you cared about [a cultural liaison position], you could use,” she said. She noted that the district hired a COVID coordinator this year. According to a WAPS press release, federal COVID funding, or ESSER funding, was used to pay for the position. With the district continuing to receive money for COVID relief, Schmidt asked, “How is that being used? How is that redistributing different pockets of money, and where does that extra money go now?”
When Freiheit was asked whether she hopes to include a cultural liaison position in a three-year plan for using ESSER funding versus in the 2021-2022 budget, she responded, “Yes, I am targeting using ESSER funding throughout the three years to fund positions that are focused on student, family and community engagement and supporting student academic achievement, mental health, and social emotional learning.”
When asked whether she would want to establish a cultural liaison position in the first, second or third year of the three-year ESSER funding plan, Freiheit said, “This is still to be determined.”
Schmidt said of including a cultural liaison position in the ESSER funding plan and not in next year’s budget, “I think if you want something enough, that we can get it done.” Schmidt said she acknowledges the district is taking part in a three-year study of how welcoming it is for underserved students and staff members, for instance, “but it almost feels like every time we do that, we just dilute the problem farther and farther.” She said, “It’s like we’re going through the motions because we have to ... And I think it’s… almost felt like hiding behind things like the budget and stuff like that are just excuses for this not to happen.” She added,”If we truly don’t have the funds, then let’s sit down and say, okay, when will we? Two years from now? How are we going to start moving money around so that we do?”