Hastings Public Schools' new cultural liaison and equity coordinator Gabriel Moreno will help the district find ways to better engage and value students of different cultural backgrounds.

In his role, Moreno says he wants to help teachers build up students' sense of security and safety to ensure their success. That means he has a variety of duties that could range from assisting in setting up parent-teacher conferences to leading student groups.

“Family and student engagement is a major part of my role,” he said. “The two sides of the coin are the needs of the district and the needs of the family unit … my role is to be responsive to what those needs are.”

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The first weeks on the job have been slow paced, which he said is a sign the district will be patient with progress. As his work continues, he said he wants to track his work with various metrics on student perception of their experiences and engagement around inclusion.

“If we have processes that lead to no change or no positive change in outcomes, that process needs to be adjusted,” Moreno said. “I’m looking for what that blend of outcomes and process should be.”

In previous positions at Edina and Minneapolis schools, Moreno said he worked directly in the classroom while also doing similar work to what he will do in Hastings. Now, he’s excited to be working in a wider role.

“In a classroom … we’re talking 150 students that I’m connecting with,” Moreno said. “[Now] I’m putting my energy into 70-plus staff … if each of them is doing this for three of their students, I’ve already exceeded my previous footprint.”

Superintendent Tim Collins said the district is excited about Moreno’s position, which follows up a former part-time district employee who worked in a similar role. That person’s work — which, in one case, brought in Native American cultural items to the schools — was well received by parents on the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee and by students, he said.

However, at that time, the state-provided funding for the position wasn’t enough to hire a full-time worker. After receiving a new, three-year grant last year, the district is combining funding sources to change that, Collins said. The district is hoping to renew that grant funding for the position when it expires and continue it, he said.

“Even those two years, there was progress,” Collins said. “I believe that progress will be very in-depth with a full-time person.”

The district is giving Moreno some freedom to help him define his role and determine what the district’s priorities should be, Collins said.

“I definitely think that we as a district, as a community … are starting to realize that it is our responsibility to put some time and effort to reach out to our students and families that maybe don’t come from the same cultural background,” Collins said.

Moreno’s hire however has brought some community scrutiny. The district announced his hiring on Facebook, where several commentators questioned his role.

The district made what Collins described as an uncommon move: responding to those questions with a follow-up post with more details on his role.

“[Facebook] typically not where we’re going to educate our community and our parents on it,” he said. “But we decided to put something out on it because we're seeing comments on it and maybe some comments that are not accurate.”

Moreno is aware of the questions too and said he tries to reframe the discussion away from “something controversial like race, like ethnicity, like class.” He raised an example of a student who needs adaptive seating due to a disability, saying that doesn’t negatively impact a different student.

“I think that the most important thing I would want people to know is that equity is not taking something from those who have access,” Moreno said. “It’s about creating access.”