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NASP Communiqué, Vol. 35, #5
February 2007

Spotlight on Multicultural Affairs

By Terry Bontrager, NCSP,
Contributing Editor

In this issue, the multicultural spotlight is on Carlos Guerrero, a Spanish bilingual school psychologist in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). In April, the Multicultural Affairs Committee named Carlos as the Cochair for its Latino Workgroup.

CQ: In his chapter in Best Practices IV, Samuel Ortiz cites J.W. Leigh (1998) in stating that cultural competence “reflects a knowledge base of, or direct experience with, the values, attitudes, beliefs, and customs of a particular culture that can be used as both guide and context for collecting and evaluating any and all assessment data” (p. 1324). How does that describe you as a multicultural school psychologist?

Carlos: It describes what I strive to excel in and the school psychologist that I would like to become. I think the words “guide” and “context” are extremely important aspects of the statement and ideas that I keep in mind when working with students from culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) backgrounds. Instead of a knowledge base and understanding of cultural backgrounds being applied in a “cookie cutter” fashion to all students with similar characteristics, that information supports me in the evaluation process by providing insight into or giving meaning to the information that I come across. Similarly, having experience, awareness, and understanding of diverse cultures heightens my ability to ask the right questions or hone instincts of data collection in ways beyond my own past or cultural upbringing. In addition, when a student’s culture is different from the dominant culture, I consider the interaction of the two and how that interplay affects the expression of certain characteristics and abilities.

CQ: What training or other preparation did you have for your work as a school psychologist?

Carlos: I received my formal training at California State University at Long Beach under the direction of Dr. Kristin Powers and Dr. Kristi Hagans-Murrillo. Both have created a program that is research-based and progressive. It dedicates a large portion of assessment training to a thorough understanding of second language acquisition and multicultural evaluation. During my graduate studies, I worked as a research assistant for a study on the overrepresentation of African-American students with the ED eligibility and internal program evaluation for LAUSD on special education programs. Before and during my graduate training, I taught in a predominantly Latino school district in the general education, bilingual education, and special education settings. In addition, I was self-employed during this time working individually with students with autism on academics and life-skills.

CQ: What training or other preparation did you have for your work as a multicultural school psychologist?

Carlos: I studied Sociology at Berkeley as an undergraduate and was able to walk through an urban laboratory everyday. My time and studies there gave me an understanding of the institutions that we are all exposed to and their influence on us. More importantly, this foundation helped me focus on the context of a given situation and search beyond the obvious for deeper explanations to the way things are. Always looking at things through their cultural contexts gives more credence and relevance to my end analysis.

Trying to veer away from academics to ensure that school psychology was really where my heart was, I worked for almost three years as a claims representative for Social Security. Without realizing it at the time, this proved invaluable for my future as a multicultural psychologist because interacting effectively and compassionately with a wide cross-section of society is paramount to our work as school psychologists. My job at the time was to make comprehensible a complex, bureaucratic, government entity that families had to navigate during a time of great transition. The disability and retirement claims I helped people process were confusing and steeped in laws and regulations. They required clear communication between both parties. Many people were scared of the process or suspicious of dealing with the government. I came to recognize that and address those feelings up front so that more effective communication could take place. I relished the challenge of connecting in some way with all claimants so that, at the very least, they were heard and provided with the information that they needed. Even now I constantly utilize those public relations, listening, and communication skills when working with families from diverse backgrounds.

CQ: What strategies have you found to be successful in reaching individuals from diverse backgrounds?

Carlos: I work in two elementary schools in South Los Angeles that primarily serve African-American and Latino students. As such, when I begin interactions, I try not to have any assumptions about the individuals or families that I interact with so that preconceived notions or hearsay do not taint my interactions. At the same time, I understand that I must be aware of where I am and whom I am working with. I use my experiences of working with students and families from diverse backgrounds to guide the assessment process. I do not apply this information as a blanket profile, but use my experience and knowledge base for awareness of important issues and to inform how I interpret data.

As part of the respect I establish with families, I try to see the school entity and myself through their eyes and proceed accordingly. The low SES communities that I work in regard public institutions with weakened levels of trust. Once I acknowledge and accept that, like it or not, I am part of a government and a bureaucracy, I do not take initial impressions or misunderstandings personally. Instead, I focus on what I can control. I do my best to initiate interactions with students and parents that emphasize clear communication of the process and reciprocity of ideas/input. My intention is to do what I can for the benefit of the child. Receptively, I focus on listening to students and parents and hearing their primary concerns. When doing so, I try to mirror the body language or tone of my informants to create a sense of connection that aids conversation and the exchange of ideas. Overall, I work to foster mutual understanding so that everyone involved works together during the process for the best outcome possible.

CQ: What results do those strategies give you?

Carlos: I’ve been fortunate to have positive interactions. I get a lot of appreciation from parents for my efforts to try and help their children. They thank me for listening and for understanding how difficult it can be in some families to help their children when English is a second language or when supporting a family takes up so much time and effort. I am encouraged by the honesty and willingness to share that I sometimes see in parents when they must discuss difficult information with me. Sometimes just a smile or a relaxed look after an IEP meeting encourages me to always put people first. Similarly, smiles from the students I work with and other small forms of appreciation motivate me to continue learning from my experiences and improve.

CQ: Please describe an experience where you believe that being a multicultural school psychologist helped you make a difference in the life of a learner.

Carlos: I remember a student named Alan who I worked with some time ago. He had quite a reputation as a behavior problem. Many in the school had essentially given up on him. He was not allowed to play at recess or enjoy other extracurricular activities. His family was from a Middle Eastern country and was known at the school for a lack of involvement. During my first meeting with his mother, she nearly broke down in tears with frustration at his reading and behavioral difficulties. Shortly afterwards, she apologized profusely for doing so. Not only did I thank her for caring so much about Alan to do something she normally would not do in her culture, but I showed her that it was culturally appropriate in the school setting — and within her rights as a parent — to advocate publicly for the welfare of her son. I used the incident as a breakthrough moment to discuss the challenges of acculturation and how it is often difficult to reconcile differences in culture between home and school. The knowledge gained from our conversation about Alan’s culture and home life helped provide a framework for working with him. With social skill support, I advocated a fresh start for him at the school and began some positive behavior support. Our conversation also helped his mother learn more about the world Alan entered everyday and the ways that she could support his progress. With improvement in his behavior and self-esteem, we were better able to address his reading difficulties.

CQ: Who is your hero, your role model, or the person whom you admire most? How does emulating that person affect your practice as a multicultural school psychologist?

Carlos: One of my professors at Cal State Long Beach, Dr. Judy McBride, has become a mentor and role model in the field. Her work in the Milwaukee Public Schools and in Long Beach Unified with CLD students highlights a sensitivity and understanding of the communities that these students live in. Her work is also an example of a belief that all students are in fact “kids” and want to please the caring adults around them and succeed.

Dr. McBride embodies a long list of intangible attributes that highly influence my practice. She has instilled a sense of positive pragmatism that inspires me to always think of what I can do or hope for when working with CLD students, especially those from environments that present innumerable challenges. Every time that I can be a caring, adult male figure in a child’s life at school, I’m hoping to create a circle of care. Every time I create bonds with parents and teachers as an ally and advocate, I’m helping to create a system of support. I’m encouraged to believe proactive interactions with students, parents, and teachers can bring about real change in schools in low SES areas with students of diverse backgrounds. I also practice a belief learned that even when I do not succeed or when things do not work as I had hoped, I continue to learn and expand my knowledge base with every interaction. Finally, in emulating her creativity, I try and think outside the box and come up with ideas and solutions that utilize strengths or existing resources to make the best of whatever situation I am faced with.

CQ: Burnout is a problem that all educators face. What do you do to renew your spirit and energies?

Carlos: I feel that finding outlets and passions is paramount to remaining an invigorated and effective professional. I put a premium on staying active by playing soccer every other weekend with friends and going to the gym during the week. The former is fun, helps me keep in touch with good people, and gives me the exhaustion needed to truly relax. The latter is my stress release — I do not have to talk to anyone, and I get to listen to all the CDs that I do not play nearly enough. As a music lover, I still try to see live music when I can around town with friends. This gives us a way to stay connected as well as support art and creative people. I truly believe that the happier and more at peace I am away from work, the more energy and enthusiasm I bring to my schools.

© 2007, National Association of School Psychologists. Carlos Guerrero invites NASP members interested in volunteering in the Latino Workgroup to e-mail him at carlos. guerrero@lausd.net. The group will collaborate to develop NASP resources in the area of culturally competent practices. If you have a suggestion for a subject for Spotlight on Multicultural Affairs, please contact Terry Bontrager at terry.bontrager@umb.edu