K-12 Teachers Learn Cultural Competency Through Kean University Professional Development

UNION, N.J. — As newcomers from all over the world make New Jersey their home and the student population across school districts becomes more diverse, a Kean program is helping teachers acquire understanding, perspective, and evidence-based strategies so that they can teach more intentionally.

Offered through the John S. Watson Institute for Urban Public and Research at Kean University, the program provides teachers with cultural competency training, specialized teaching strategies, and tools to help them engage diverse students. The NJ Cultural Competency and English Language Learners Institute and Mentoring Program is in its 14th year and has served over 390 teachers, impacting 8,000 students by tying their cultures and languages to school practices.

The Trenton School District recently kicked off its fourth consecutive year of training, and the Carteret, Rahway, Newark, and Paterson districts have participated in the program in the past.

“The engagement of school leaders and educators in culturally courageous conversations about race and culturally responsive pedagogy is critical,” said Joseph Youngblood II, Ph.D., J.D., Kean’s senior vice president for external affairs. “We desire to see this program in every district in New Jersey as the diversity of students continues to increase. Equipping educators with strategies to engage diverse students can transform the way we educate all students."

The program is the brainchild of Ana Berdecia, director of Kean’s Center for the Positive Development of Urban Children.

“If you don’t see a student’s color or understand the difficulties of learning a second language, you don’t see your students and can’t teach them well,” she said. “It’s all about meeting students where they are and giving permission to teach creatively and use intuition to make learning exciting and build connections.”

Berdecia “identified early on that embracing the cultural differences and varied ethnic backgrounds of youth, through classroom design and instructional pedagogy, enables a vibrant and successful learning experience for children and a rewarding instructive experience for teachers,” said Barbara George Johnson, Kean’s vice president for external affairs and urban policy.

This year in Trenton, 32 teachers across grades K-12 will receive 21 hours of certified professional development, including group coaching in the application of strategies to validate, affirm, build and bridge the cultural wealth that students bring to their learning. Teachers will also receive specialized educational materials for use in their classrooms. 

Principals and vice principals are receiving training in a nine-hour, virtual, three-part series. Overall, more than 100 educators in Trenton, working with some 3,000 students, have participated in the program, which is funded through a grant from the Trenton Board of Education and is subsidized by Kean.

Sandra Iturbides, supervisor of the bilingual and world language programs in Trenton, said the program has served 16 schools in her district since 2016.

By understanding how culture affects classroom climate, she said, district leaders have been able to add emotional and spiritual depth to the educational experiences they offer and improve support of students who are learning English — a population that, in Trenton, has nearly tripled over the past five years to 4,490.

“Participants discover how culture and language can be interwoven across subject content through experiential learning, reflective practice and culturally rich moments,” Iturbides said. “Then, using rigorous content, they align their practices with the highest professional standards and receive mentoring throughout the year, culminating in impactful and transformative educational activities.”

Berdecia is teaching the course in Trenton, along with three consultants acting as coaches.

“With the racial unrest in the nation, I have been providing cultural competency training for years — before diversity and inclusion were buzzwords,” she said.

Kean encourages school districts interested in funding and benefiting from the program, as well as corporations and foundations that would like to sponsor it in their communities, to reach out to the University.


Founded in 1855, Kean University is one of the largest metropolitan institutions of higher education in the region, with a richly diverse student, faculty and staff population. Kean continues to play a key role in the training of teachers and is a hub of educational, technological and cultural enrichment serving more than 16,000 students. The University’s six undergraduate colleges offer more than 50 undergraduate degrees over a full range of academic subjects. The Nathan Weiss Graduate College offers seven doctoral degree programs and more than 70 options for graduate study leading to master’s degrees, professional diplomas or certifications. With campuses in Union, Toms River, Jefferson and Manahawkin, New Jersey, and Wenzhou, China, Kean University furthers its mission by providing an affordable and accessible world-class education. Visit www.kean.edu.


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