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Feeling invisible? Cultural liaisons want to help

Greg Van Leer Jr. hadn't played trombone since he went to middle school.

But as one of four District 833 cultural liaisons and a man who cares about "students of color or anybody else," he said he wanted to serve as an example to a seventh-grader at an educational crossroads. Van Leer heard about the boy's vast potential, family history as professional musicians, lack of effort, and the lingering effect the boy was having on other students. He met with Oltman Middle School director of band Sara Comeau and asked what instrument the boy played. It was the same instrument that Van Leer played in his early years in band.

"The lightbulb kind of went on," Van Leer said.

One crash-course refresher lesson and permission from Comeau and Van Leer immersed himself in two weeks of band classes. He combined his efforts as a surprise student in class with home visits with the student's family, and even performed in concert.

Message to the talented student: Just continue to play.

"I practiced 30 minutes after school each day, and just tried to ask the young man to do the same thing," Van Leer said.

Van Leer remembers when, in 1991, he was uprooted from Los Angeles and relocated to Woodbury. It was difficult to attend a school attended by few African Americans.

"I try to be the person who I wish I had when I came to Woodbury High School," said Van Leer, the grandson of South Washington County School Board member Sharon Van Leer. "I'm able to bring my whole skill set, I can bring my whole self to the table, get to know the parents and support what they want for their children."

The district's cultural liaisons spoke to the school board last month, relating stories about their own educational experiences, some of which included self-esteem issues, feelings of being ignored, and lack of connection. The cultural liaisons, newly hired by the District 833, complement two other programs—academic success coaching and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)—to serve different underrepresented or disadvantaged youths through the Office of Equity and Integration (OEI).

Cultural liaisons get to know parents and families of color, advocate for them, support teachers and administration on cultural issues, receive requests to check in with students of color, develop mentorships, help kids who are hurting, or merely look kids in the eye and smile.

Trust is a pathway to progress, cultural liaison Trina Patterson said. "In an environment where you may feel you're invisible, you matter."

Cultural liaison Tania Sprague said that families' values, history, culture and native language are incorporated, not forgotten, when students go to school. That has helped students succeed and families get engaged in their children's learning.

The program has resulted in a decreased number of suspensions and behavioral issues, cultural liaison Tracy Barries said, and helped students make progress toward academic performance at or above grade level.

The AVID program has been shown to narrow achievement gaps in the district, assistant superintendent Mike Johnson said in an administrative report to the school board, and academic success coaches impacted more than 100 students and their families at Pine Hill, Armstrong, Newport and Woodbury elementary schools.

Being bold helps District 833 remain the "premier district in the state of Minnesota," Van Leer said. Cultural liaisons might not know what challenges they will face on a day-to-day basis, Van Leer said, but they have gifts for a reason—to help the next generation.