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CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING TAKES TIME, OFFICIAL SAYS

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There's more to diversity than what Juanita Benioni calls "the zoo experience."

You can't get a good feeling for a culture by attending a Cinco de Mayo celebration, one Polynesian festival or an event to honor Martin Luther King Jr. This approach is similar to watching an animal at the zoo, said Benioni, who is Granite School District's new director of Educational Equity."You see that animal in a sterile environment. It's not what is really natural for that animal."

Instead, understanding differences among races, sexes, cultures and abilities happens over time. It takes tolerance, respect and a thorough awareness of those things that make people different, Benioni said.

"It's just like you can't go to Hawaii for two weeks and know what it is to be Hawaiian," she said.

This month, the Granite School District Board of Education appointed Benioni to the top diversity position in the state's largest school district. Formerly the acting associate director of Multicultural Services, the new position folds several new responsibilities into her job.

Benioni will direct multicultural services, resolve concerns related to federal title programs, ensure the district is in compliance with state and federal civil rights statutes, monitor educational equity programs and advise Superintendent Steve Ronnenkamp and staff about equity issues.

"By creating this position, Granite has taken a giant leap toward providing equity for all students," spokesman Kent Gardner said.

The district has become increasingly diverse over the past few years. For example, record numbers of students have alternative language needs, said Julene Oliver, acting assistant superintendent.

"With these needs in mind, we could no longer educate students and staff in the same way we had been," Oliver said. "We wanted to look at equity in a broader way."

So Benioni, who is finishing doctoral studies in educational leadership and linguistics at Brigham Young University, talks to people about the zoo.

"We have to teach all of our children how to be able to live and succeed in a global society," she said.

Prejudices have improved in Utah during the past 10 to 20 years, but many people still have biases. "I do see changes here. Big changes," Benioni said. "We need to understand that there are differences and learn to respect those differences."

And cultural awareness extends beyond race and skin color. Gender issues are important, as is understanding about lifestyle choice and physical difference. There are noteworthy traits of geographic regions, too.

Look at Utah County, Benioni points out. "Utah County has a culture all its own."

Although part of Benioni's job is to evaluate policies, procedures and other paperwork, she is hands-on and animated in her group presentations.

Benioni startled a group of 175 administrators recently by asking them to stand up during a daylong series of meetings and shake out their legs. Then she taught them to dance.

"I showed them how to do the Macarena. They were a little surprised," she said.

Macarena is a No. 1 song by the music group Los Del Rio. The hand movements and hip-shaking of the dance that accompanies the song were made popular by the U.S. Women's Gymnastics team in their post gold medal demonstration.

Students need to have total physical response in learning, Benioni explained. They need to see it, hear it and feel it."