When Centennial High School Assistant Principal Joelle Miller arrived at the school three years ago, she got a copy of her students' responses to a countywide survey seeking their view of schools' overall environment for learning.

She couldn't believe what she read.

Nearly 40 percent of respondents, she said, reported having been teased or bullied for such reasons as hair color or skin color, or were regarded by other students as "not being smart enough."

She and other administrators and faculty at the Ellicott City school vowed to change the school's climate. They initiated staff training to increase awareness of such issues and then launched Centennial's School Improvement Team, which focused on a school system-mandated goal of providing a safe and nurturing environment for all students and staff. Later Centennial added a Student School Improvement Team to include youngsters' input.

"Unless you have a school that is safe and nurturing, and a place where all kids are valued, you're not going to get optimal learning," Miller said. "You're not going to get what you can out of the kid that's sitting in the seat in front of the teacher.

"Being aware of culture and your environment and the people that are in it — you have to know that before you can move on to anything else," she said.

Centennial's effort is part of a district-wide approach in Howard County public schools to foster multicultural awareness and teach lessons about diversity alongside traditional instruction.

It's one of the reasons the school system was chosen to co-host a national Cultural Proficiency Institute program that is coming to Columbia on Monday and Tuesday.

The Cultural Proficiency Institute, which is expected to draw educators from across the county and Canada to the Sheraton Columbia Town Center, is among several training programs offered by Corwin, a California-based publisher that's co-sponsoring the event.

Company President Mike Soules said the Howard County school system was chosen as co-host for the program because it's recognized as a national leader in promoting cultural proficiency in schools.

John Krownapple, Howard's chief of professional development for cultural proficiency, said the idea of teaching cultural awareness originated in the mental health and social work fields in the late 1980s. As people experienced increased diversity in workplaces, they created tools to help improve "cultural competence" — the ability to interact with people of varied backgrounds and ensure that all people are treated with respect.

That's needed in school as well, and Krownapple works with county staff and PTAs to encourage teachers and administrators to develop tools to recognize and respect diversity. Those practices can include frank discussions, exercises and special student focus on diversity.

This year at Centennial, for example, the school will conduct a weeklong program on cultural awareness for students, with speakers and performances highlighting various cultures represented at the school.

Krownapple said such efforts are ways to create an environment that celebrates culture.

"Going into next year, our goal is to weave the tools of cultural proficiency … into our support for all new teachers," he said.

The practice has taken hold with students. Naseem Pashai, a Centennial junior from Ellicott City, is one of the creators of the school's Project Power initiative, an effort launched to combat bullying.

"We built Project Power on a foundation of five essential things: community, togetherness, dedication, family and team," said Pashai.

This coming year, she hopes to be a health and social issues coordinator for the Howard County Association of Student Councils, and will use that group to help take Project Power to other county schools.

Ben Evans, a Centennial graduate from Ellicott City who worked with the Student School Improvement Team, said that group took cultural awareness seriously in its approach to overall school improvement.

"We broke into subcommittees to see what aspects of the school we not only wanted to improve, but what we didn't like and we wanted to get rid of," he said. "It's not just the leaders of the school, like SGA and National Honors Society. It's more of the leaders and the voices in the classroom."

Miller said current students and recent graduates of Centennial will attend Cultural Proficiency Institute presentations to talk about their approaches to ensure that students voices are heard, not only with regard to multiculturalism, but on any topic.

"What is amazing with the staff here is the number of teachers we have on board to help," Miller said. "The first year we had some resistance, but … this year it's 'Can I help out with this committee?' or 'What can I do for that committee?' "

Miller said the results are evident. Centennial has seen decreases in suspensions, fighting and bullying reports since the last survey was conducted.

She said this year, Centennial students will take their own survey dealing with school climate to gauge responses from seniors who took the test three years ago as freshmen. But already, she said Centennial staff believe their efforts have contributed to a more supportive school climate.

"Kids are respecting the environment," she said. "Kids are standing up for each other."

jburris@baltsun.com