Sitting Down with Dawn, Counselor at Faribault High School

As part of our work at Faribault, we were able to sit down with Dawn Peanasky, a school counselor at FHS, who worked in close partnership with us on the Faribault project in the spring of 2013. Dawn has worked at Faribault for over ten years and came to the school with a history of leadership and experience in education. She began in schools as a classroom teacher, but has also worked as a band director and has an advanced degree in administration.

Dawn’s work as a counselor has given her experience in an array of different types of schools. Dawn worked in South Dakota, which she described as having a “very White, not very diverse population at all.” Later, she lived in Ames, Iowa, “which had diversity because of Iowa State and the University, but probably a different population.” While living in Iowa, Dawn thought, “you know as an educator, I thought that I knew diversity, I felt that, ‘Oh my children and the different races of their friends,’ but what I found was really different”:

"Once I [moved to Minnesota], the biggest difference was the socio-economic realities. Most of my children’s friends [in Iowa] were professors’ children and people that were educated, and many of our students here are living in poverty, and so that is something that I see as a huge difference.”

Once Dawn moved to Minnesota, she worked with the Burnsville School District. Burnsville, Dawn noted, had “a very diverse population, probably more so at the junior high that I was at. Again, we had a lot of Section 8 housing in that neighborhood and we had a lot of inner-city Minneapolis students transferring there.” She noted that while there was tension between students of different backgrounds at Burnsville, “as that population changed...what I learned there was that they were years ahead of where we were at Faribault. They had experienced that [diversity and integration], they had gotten to know each other, the [racial, socio-economic] lines were crossed, they embraced each other more.”

At Faribault, Dawn notes that there is a “sort of segregation that I think I observe here at lunch and things.” The tensions focus primarily around “racial and ethnic problems.” At the same time, Dawn’s work as a counselor permits her to see inside homes and families in a way other educators at Faribault are not privileged to do. Through this work, Dawn says she is “aware of some of the hardships that students are facing at home, [related to] socio-economic difference but that probably isn’t what the issues or the conflict is between our students.”

A huge issue within the FHS is the question of prayer and allowing students to pray during the day. Dawn said that she has had “a number of students talk to me on both sides of the prayer issue”:

For Somali students, feeling that others don’t understand what their religion is and the importance of [prayer] in their day. And then on the other side, some students and staff not understanding.”

In considering ways to approach the complicated issue of prayer in schools, Dawn says that FHS has a policy of having times in the day that leaving the classroom for prayer is allowed. When the school started to address the issue of the students’ ability to pray during school, administrators met with some of the elders in the community, especially in the Muslim community to talk about what the administration should be doing at the FHS. Dawn states she knew that there were also talks with attorneys as far as what the school needed to do to provide for these students: 

“There were times when they needed to wash their feet, so we had something set up so they could do that and then [we provided] the prayer space where they can go. Originally there was more freedom for students to pray when the felt they needed to but now those time frames have been narrowed  more to the homeroom period or during their lunchtime. That [change has] actually been with the support of the adults and elders in the community who have said, ‘no, [the students] need to be in class, they need to be able to [pray] and to do it at this time or before and after school.’”

The issue of prayer in schools has also been addressed in Faribault from the non-Muslim perspective. Dawn brought up the example of students from a non-denominational church group deciding that they were going to pray around the flagpole in the morning and other students could join them where they were going to pray. Dawn says a student initially asked her for a space the group could meet and pray and Dawn worked with the administration so that they were also given a space that adults were aware of. There was some supervision but the [students] were mostly on their own, we [the administration] wouldn’t provide anything.” Dawn cites this as an example of how open the Faribault administration is:

“What can we do here [at a public high school] with the separation of religion and state while allowing students to embrace their differences and working with them?”

In order to understand what Faribault is doing to help students on this task of embracing difference, I asked Dawn what steps the school was taking to incorporate discussions of diversity into the school’s goals. Dawn noted that the school has a few student interest groups surrounding diversity, like the CAST (College Ambitions Start Today) program, which provides educational support for immigrant and first-generation students at Faribault to enroll in college, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes group, and a Latina group. Nonetheless, Dawn acknowledged that clubs related to issues of diversity could help further the emphasis on appreciating difference. Dawn cited in particular the student interest in 2012 to form an LGBTQ group and have the counselors with the group to produce anti-bullying material. However, Dawn said, “those that were interested kind of dropped back but I have in the last month or so had some students wonder if this is something we can explore for next year. Certainly we’ve had a number of students this year come out to their classmates and others that want to support them, but I think there has been a little apprehension in going towards that direction.”

“And that was one thing that I mentioned to my principal probably ten years ago was that I didn’t feel that [Faribault High School] was a very comfortable, supportive environment, but maybe students didn’t feel like it was okay to talk about [sexuality and race], but I think we’ve come a ways and I think we need to have more of those groups.”

Another avenue FHS is working on is the bringing in of speakers and visitors to address issues of diversity of all kinds. Dawn hopes that such speakers can form “the foundation so that we can have better conversations.” The school brought in a theater group to do a performance on the hijab, the headscarf worn by many adherent Muslim women. “We thought it was going to be wonderful,” Dawn said. “But it was not well received by our Muslim girls.” This dissatisfaction with the performance came from the fact that one of the performers “described her own situation and how she has decided to not wear the hijab and not do these things, and it was viewed by our girls [at Faribault] that, ‘Oh, this does not represent us.’ So, something we tried did not work well.” The school also brought in Jamie Nabozny in 2012-2013, who grew up in Wisconsin and filed a major lawsuit against his school district for the bullying he faced as a result of his coming out as gay. Dawn admired the rhetoric of “respect” he brought to the school with his talk.

Faribault is also addressing its diverse populations by increasing communication between the school and parents. Dawn became a facilitator for Faribault’s FAST (Family and Schools Together) group, a series of meetings with parents where “food and fellowship” are provided. FHS hosted meetings in 2013 and had a graduation ceremony for parents who completed the FAST course in June, 2014.1  The school has hosted Spanish-speaking, Somali-speaking, and English sessions:

“Trying to reach those families where they are at so they feel comfortable coming into school, so they understand curriculum, so they understand some of the things we’re maybe struggling with. But really more about how they can help their child be successful.”

The school also hosts “Somali and Latino nights, again, just to kind of communicate, and we have a lot of open house type activities about just letting people know how school works and just trying to have that communication, and have interpreters and people that can help us through that.

Our interpreters and liaisons are much more than that in our building by helping us work with families, and I think word is getting out that it's okay to come in to school.”

Many times, I see some of our EL (English Learner) families coming in and they really want to know how their students are doing. They don’t have access to computers at home or even understand what that means if they could access our grade books and discipline reports, so they just come in for a brief conference to talk about their students.”

Still, Dawn acknowledges that the most work to be done in addressing issues of diversity is “something that’s more curriculum driven and more consistent.” She said that the school is “constantly looking for materials to teach diversity. Even though this is our school, these issues are new to us, it’s something that most of us didn’t have any training in.”

What makes it all worth it is her job at Faribault allows Dawn 'to be able to impact and to help kids get to where they want to go. It’s really good'.

Overall, Dawn notes that, at Faribault, “It has changed in my time here, over the years. I think its an exciting place to work, I love the diversity. I love the challenge of working with that and learning from the students. I wish that all of the staff had the opportunity sometime to do what I have, the chance especially to talk to students in small groups or one-on-one. I talk to parents at times and that’s done with the help of an interpreter, but the history of some of these families and students, what they’ve been through to get here, it’s amazing. So often with our large class sizes, our teachers don’t have the chance to have the luxury of really sitting down with them and hearing those stories.”

In her work as a school counselor, Dawn appreciates the fact that “there’s never a dull moment. It’s the kind of job that everything you have planned for a day goes out the window.” But she told me that what makes it all worth it is her job at Faribault allows herto be able to impact and to help kids get to where they want to go. It’s really good,” Dawn said, smiling, as students filed the hallway behind us.

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