Schools are an extension of family

February 14, 2023

This map at Willowbrook Elementary School depicts where the English-Language Learners' families come from.

On a map of earth outside Amy Olesen’s classroom at Willowbrook Elementary in Altoona are portraits of her smiling students. Strings of yarn link each portrait to the country from which their families come. From South America and all the way to the Islands of Micronesia, this map displays the rich cultural diversity represented at Willowbrook Elementary School.

Underneath the map reads, “the beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people.”

“The thing about Willowbrook that’s really unique is that we don’t have a large population of just one culture. We have 18 countries represented with 16 different languages,” said Olesen, who teaches the English Language Learner (ELL) class at Willowbrook.

The Willowbrook Elementary community takes pride in its multicultural makeup. When the PTA raised extra funding, President Jon Grundmeier saw an opportunity to expand the school’s inclusive practices and educate students on the value of diversity through a CultureALL Multicultural Day.

“My wife and I are both from very small towns, where the school is just another extension of the family. That’s something we want to help create here. One way I think we can do that is to find connections through our differences,” Grundmeier said.

Representation Matters

Olesen had worked with CultureALL in the past, inviting a CultureALL Ambassador to present during a school assembly. When Grundmeier approached Olesen with the PTA funding, they immediately thought of CultureALL. Olesen hoped to expand the partnership to include Ambassadors from all over the world.

“We were really intentional with some of the presenters that we had and some of the cultures we really wanted to highlight, so that students felt validated and seen,” Olesen said.

CultureALL Ambassador Francis Chan with students dressed in South Sudanese clothing

Eight Ambassadors shared their customs and traditions with the students throughout the day. Students were able to join a Mexican percussion band, use their bodies to dance an ancient story of India, calculate math by the beats of an African drum, and more.

As Olesen walked from room to room, she saw students deeply engaged with the workshops, teetering on the edges of their seats and absorbing every word of the presentations. With their eyes on the Ambassadors, the students were captivated and respectful, everyone raising their hands to learn even more about the Ambassadors’ cultures.

Olesen also watched her English-language Learners begin to glow with a confidence she hadn’t seen before.

“My students saw that other kids thought that the Multicultural Day was cool,” she said. “Sometimes, we want to hide that we’re different. We don’t want to speak another language in front of other people, or we want to hide that our family has a certain tradition. This culture day brought out to the forefront that it’s really cool to have these things about us that make us unique and that they’re valued and respected.”

Simply seeing how fascinated their classmates were by the Ambassadors’ stories and artifacts showed Olesen’s ELL students that their own unique differences were respected and valued at Willowbrook Elementary School. Inspired by the workshops, several students requested to bring in artifacts from their own cultures to teach their classmates about where they came from. One student impressed her classmates by speaking the same language as the Ambassador, giving her a confidence she lacked before.

“She realized that she has a gift that she can give people, which is making the world, which is so large, seem a little bit smaller,” Olesen said. “It really shifted the power to some of those students so they could have a voice.”

The Value of Cultural Education

The network of 80+ CultureALL Ambassadors represents over 40 cultures from around the world. Students like those at Willowbrook receive a well-rounded, diverse learning experience when CultureALL Ambassadors visit their schools.

“I just knew that CultureALL was a really high-quality program,” Olesen said. “The Ambassadors are really engaging and authentic and informational. It was so motivating for the kids. There was so much happiness and smiling and joy happening.”

Willowbrook students dance with maracas

Willowbrook’s Multicultural Day went beyond just the students. Families were able to attend Ambassador workshops that night as well. Grundmeier said the experience was captivating for his entire family.

“It was really cool to see how engaged my kids were,” he said. “When we got home later, they were so excited to tell me about each thing they learned and how cool it was.”

The value of the Multicultural Day starts in the classroom but extends outward to the whole community. When kids are excited about learning, it offers a unique opportunity for parents to connect with them over new information. Families are able to see the value in exploring the world and all it has to offer.

That spark of curiosity will carry Willowbrook Elementary students toward an understanding and acceptance of difference, leading to more inclusive behaviors and practices as they grow into an increasingly multicultural world.

Olesen noted that students often develop misconceptions that they carry around with them. But this Multicultural Day and the conversations that followed opened their eyes, she said. “They were able to understand more and realize that difference is valued.

“When we planned out this day, we knew that whatever the cost was, it was warranted because we were getting a really high quality program with CultureALL,” Olesen said. “It piqued students’ interest in having those conversations and being respectful and wanting to know more about what they don’t know.”

A CultureALL Ambassador works with a student to create a Chinese lantern

CultureALL believes that sharing the cultural richness of our community with others will elevate our society and the quality of life for all.