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Diversity, sensitivity program targets S.C. schools

By Sheila Ojendyk

GREER — Diversity encompasses not only race and ethnicity but also gender, age, disability, and family background. Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries, says the goal of her office is to “make church more welcoming to all people regardless of background.”

Merritt said that changing prejudicial attitudes must begin with children. Schools cannot change what parents teach their children. Schools can only teach children to make positive choices in life.

Bishop Robert J. Baker commissioned the Office of Ethnic Ministries to develop a diversity awareness and sensitivity program for the Catholic schools and appointed a team consisting of Merritt; Margaret Adams, Ph.D., director of Catholic Schools; and George L. Jones, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist on the faculty at Clemson University.

The team developed a three-year, three-step plan beginning with a survey of the diversity climate in S.C. Catholic schools. Surveys were sent to every Catholic school in the diocese. Every adult employee was surveyed; the response rate was 88 percent.

The survey comprised eight questions, four of which were targeted as areas needing improvement.

To the statement, “If my school is to remain an excellent institution, it must recruit and retain more diverse faculty,” approximately 61 percent of respondents either disagreed or were neutral.

“How often do your social interactions include colleagues with different racial ethnic backgrounds?” This question revealed that approximately 52 percent of school faculty have little or no social contact with people from other ethnic or racial backgrounds outside of their jobs.

Only 20 percent of respondents felt minority teachers were well-represented in their school. Approximately 40 percent felt their schools did a good job highlighting contributions by minorities.

The second step of the three-year plan is a centralized, ongoing training program on diversity awareness and sensitivity for teachers. The last step will provide training and resources for the schools to use at the classroom level.

Merritt said that some schools already have diversity awareness activities on an individual basis. She commended students at Greenville’s St. Joseph High School for their stories illustrating diversity for younger children.

Teens are getting involved, too. Dwight Heyward, Ta’Nisha Holmes, and Lauren Waring of St. Patrick Church in Charleston designed a diversity awareness workshop based on their life experiences. Their presentation examined differences in communication between cultures and ways to reduce tension and improve relationships between racial and ethnic groups. The three first presented their workshop to the youth group at Christ Our King in Mt. Pleasant and then to teens attending the diocesan Senior High Youth Conference.

The Office of Ethnic Ministries has a number of resources, including age-appropriate videos for children and books available for checkout. For more information, contact Kathleen Merritt at (864) 234-9009 ext. 121.

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