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Holladay Journal

Culturally inclusive curriculum is a work in progress at Olympus High

Sep 29, 2020 10:17AM ● By Heather Lawrence

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Olympus High principal Steve Perschon learned something interesting when he taught seventh- grade Utah History. “I could tell by the comments kids made how their parents talked about politics at home. Interpretation of history begins at home,” Perschon said. 

In a Sept. 14 conversation, Perschon and Jen Wunderli, parent of six Olympus alumni, said both home and school curriculum play a role in learning. A curriculum that’s inclusive of many cultures is a work in progress. 

“Olympus has one of the highest percentages of Caucasian students—84%. Then it’s 8% Latino/Hispanic, 3.5% Asian, 3% African American and 1% American Indian/Alaska Native. Students from the Middle East are classified as Caucasian in our numbers. But the rest of Granite District is much more diverse,” Perschon said. 

Wunderli’s daughter Kate graduated in 2020, and was one of a few Black students at Olympus. “I think she felt she got ‘framed’ for a lot of things because she’s Black,” Wunderli said. 

Perschon monitors himself for “microaggressions.” “It’s a word we hear a lot lately. There’s a lot of parental support for learning more. But our community is also somewhat sheltered—there is a lack of exposure to diverse cultures. 

“Students might make a joke about something they learned in history class because they think it happened a long time ago. They don’t realize that for other people it’s still relevant and hurtful. Becoming aware of microaggressions is a big focus this year,” Perschon said. 

Olympus’ curriculum is set by the Utah State Board of Education. Granite has a Curriculum and Instruction Department which approves textbooks. There is also Educational Equity staff. “I think we’re going to see those two departments working together more,” Perschon said. 

“Right now, all my 10th-grade world civilizations teachers use the same book. But I think most of them use it as a jumping off point. There are so many online resources—access to primary sources and documents. A lot of teachers bring those into instruction,” Perschon said. 

History is an obvious example, but another subject open to diversity is English. “There are no specific texts teachers have to teach. So to teach that process—because what you’re learning in English class is a process of how to think—there is freedom with the texts you choose,” Perschon said. 

Perschon welcomes feedback on inclusivity (or lack thereof) by parents and students. He has a good working relationship with Wunderli, who is heavily involved at Olympus with the Friend 2 Friend charity and linked student organization.  

“This is an ongoing conversation. You can’t be inclusive if you don’t know what’s going on. It’s important for people to speak up and to listen when they do,” Wunderli said. 

“Teaching starts young,” she said. “I don’t think little kids notice skin color, or if they do, they don’t make much of it. But I’ve been working with some junior high kids, and there is some friction there. It starts small: someone ‘won’t come to an event because so-and-so is going to be there.’ And they don’t say it has anything to do with skin color, but what they see is ‘difference,’ and they are afraid of it. We have to nip it in the bud when it starts.” 

One thing Perschon wishes is that he could get teaching applicants from more diverse backgrounds.  

“I’ve been here for seven years, and all my history teachers are phenomenal—it’s a strong group. But I wish we could get some teachers who match the district demographic. To be honest, I’ve never had any apply. I’ve never had an interview with a Black applicant to teach history here,” Perschon said. 

Perschon feels that the recent attention on Black Lives Matter changed things. “This year’s movement is changing the culture. And that’s usually easier for the younger generation. They’re fine with it. 

“In older generations, you might learn about slavery and how bad it was, and you didn’t want to focus on the bad, so then you stopped talking about it. It seemed like ancient history. It depends on where you live, too. American history is not taught the same way in the northeast of the U.S. as it is in the South. 

“Now we’re talking about things like how this country was shaped and largely built by [enslaved people]. Structurally, the labor of [enslaved people] is a big part of American history. And I think people are ready to acknowledge and talk about that, especially the younger generation,” Perschon said.  

Wunderli added that her family talks about why tragic news events bring out dramatic protests and riots. “We should be talking about it all the time in a civilized way. To have that ongoing dialogue is the only way to move forward. That way, we aren’t suddenly talking about inequality every time something terrible happens, and then we forget about it again until the next terrible thing,” Wunderli said.