Human relations coordinator praised for making school a better place

June 13, 1993|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Staff Writer

Jacqueline F. Brown's most eye-opening discovery in her firs year on the job is what she calls the community's "intestinal dislike of multiculturalism."

She encountered parents and others who were afraid and unwilling to discuss differences among students. They told her they felt such discussions would only cause tension and increase problems.

"They wanted everyone to operate like everybody's the same," she says.

"It was extremely bothersome to those of us who work in the field. It was sobering to hear that differences are a deficit, divisive and can never come together. The fear is that deep."

Nine months after becoming the county schools' new human relations coordinator -- a position that pays $81,000 a year -- Ms. ,, Brown has made her mark on the school system. She's developed human relations teams in all schools; instituted "A World of Difference," an elementary school program that teaches students to understand and appreciate cultural diversity; and opened up formal lines of communication with the county Police Department as well as the Howard County Human Rights Commission.

She's also trained more than 400 administrators, principals, guidance counselors and central office personnel in such topics as cross-cultural communications, prejudice awareness and multicultural counseling. And that's above and beyond the nearly 70 workshops, seminars and programs she's sponsored for students, PTAs and teachers.

"In my wildest imagination, I would not have expected we would have accomplished so much in one year," says Superintendent Michael E. Hickey. "Most of the credit goes to her. If it weren't for Jackie, we wouldn't be near where we are right now."

Mr. Hickey recruited her for the job months after the Maryland Commission on Human Relations issued a report that criticized the schools for failing to deal with race and hate issues. The previous human relations director -- Kathleen Griffin, who had been in that position for 17 years -- left as part of an early retirement program.

"She's taken this whole [human relations] project on and has given it a direction it never had in the past," says Mary Jane Mitchell, principal at Elkridge Elementary School. "She inspires people."

Ms. Brown says she wasn't always received with open arms.

She encountered many teachers and administrators who were reluctant to try anything new, because they were "people who [had been] burned before," she says.

"They had feelings of vulnerability. When faculty, staff and administrators are constantly held up in the public as doing something wrong, they're really gun-shy about doing anything.

"We had to build their faith and trust that this was going to be different, that this office was not here to point the finger and lay blame."

Others thought that Ms. Brown, a former Bowie State University associate professor of counseling psychology, would only focus on black issues.

"Because I am African-American, they would hold that against me," she says. "Without asking, talking or coming to the office, they would assume all the issues would evolve around African-Americans."

But Ms. Brown is far from being a one-issue person, says Mr. Hickey. "She truly sees herself as multicultural," he says. "I can't say enough good things about her. She's an amazing person."

Wilde Lake High School Principal Bonnie Daniel says Ms. Brown has a personality that just clicks with students.

"She's a very straightforward person," Ms. Daniel says. "That's a very valuable approach to teens. They prefer honesty over anything else, even though it may be uncomfortable."

Ms. Brown, 48, is a Baltimore native who has three children. In her little cubicle office hang thank-you notes from schools she's visited, including a hand-made, phone book-size card Hammond dTC

High School students sent to her.

Ms. Brown thinks the change within the school system has been remarkable. "I've just seen a tremendous release of creative energy and talent -- people coming together to do things on top of everything else they're doing," she says.

Next year will be a time for her to extend human relations training to all teachers -- all administrators and central office workers have already undergone some type of training -- and to help maintain and improve human relations programs already set in motion this year.

Then there is the schools' resolve to close the academic gap between black students and others.

Her office has just released a report that sets forth a plan to deal with the issue. The plan calls for systematic improvements in motivation, assessment, support, structure and instruction -- improvements that would benefit not only black students but all students, Ms. Brown says.

"These are things for African-American students that we have to pay attention to, not to the exclusion of everyone."

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