MUNCIE, Ind. – Spending a semester immersed in an urban school setting improves students’ attitudes toward multicultural teaching and learning, according to a study conducted at Ball State University.

Minority students account for 37 percent of the elementary- and secondary-school populations nationwide. In contrast, only 15 percent of preservice teachers are minorities, and the majority of teachers have had little preparation in welcoming diversity, said Eva Zygmunt-Fillwalk, author of the study and assistant professor of elementary education at Ball State.

“Many institutions are struggling to prepare teachers for teaching in a diverse setting,” Zygmunt-Fillwalk said. “For many teachers, their first exposure to diversity is on the job in their classrooms. That should not be the case.”

Surveys cited in the study support the need to address this issue, Zygmunt-Fillwalk added. Nearly 70 percent of teachers in one study felt that they should have been more exposed to information on the history, culture and lifestyle of minority status groups.

In another survey, 83 percent of teachers expressed that their multicultural preparations did not adequately equip them to meet the needs of diverse students within their classrooms.

To dispel myths regarding urban schools and encourage interest in urban teaching, Ball State created the Urban Semester program, which was the focus of Zygmunt-Fillwalk’s study. The program places Ball State education majors in the Indianapolis Public School system.

For one semester during their junior year, students get hands-on teaching experience while completing coursework infused with multicultural content.

A treatment group of 22 Urban Semester students was compared to a control group of 21 preservice teachers. Employing a case study approach, Zygmunt-Fillwalk’s research documents Urban Semester students had a “highly significant” positive shift in attitudes regarding classroom diversity.

“Before the semester, the students were somewhat frightened and uncertain of their skills,” Zygmunt-Fillwalk said. “After the semester, their confidence and competence improved, and they welcomed working in a diverse setting. They felt like they wanted to continue their work as they were just getting started.”

At the beginning of the semester, some students believed they would encounter discipline problems, potentially dangerous work environments and apathetic parents who did not care about their children’s education. After the semester, their views had changed.

“Only through my own experience of being immersed in the world of culturally diverse education have I even begun to think about its importance,” one student commented. “It is a topic that every undergraduate needs to be aware of and skilled in before ever taking the responsibility of educating our children.”

The study has practical value for institutions that offer teacher education programs. By 2035, projections indicate that more than half of all U.S. citizens below the age of 18 will be minorities, Zygmunt-Fillwalk cited.

To prepare for increased societal diversity, colleges and universities are challenged with developing experiences for students that encourage positive attitudes and challenge cultural stereotypes.

“Adoption of programs similar to the Urban Semester program or at least incorporation of a large-scale multicultural emphasis in their teaching programs seems critical to both teacher and student success,” Zygmunt-Fillwalk said.

With such a growing non-homogenous population, the U.S. will continually be challenged to support relationships and interactions of diverse individuals and groups learning, living and working together, Zygmunt-Fillwalk said.

“The importance of a well-prepared cohort of teachers equipped to meet such a challenge cannot be overemphasized," Zygmunt-Fillwalk said.

(NOTE TO EDITORS: For more information, contact Zygmunt-Fillwalk at (765) 284-3182. For more stories, visit the Ball State University News Center.)

By Layne Cameron, Media Relations Manager