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Portland Public Schools poised to change city's demographics


HR Director Sean Murray talks about his strategies for diversity

Sean Murray, the chief of human resources at Portland Public Schools, says his programs are essentially what any good human resources officer would do.

“It’s all about how do you use them with fidelity,” Murray says.

But Murray has had a unique position from which to view the changing landscape of Portland’s workforce — and the efforts of his department could even help to shape the demographics of the city in the decades to come. PHOTO COURTESY: KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL/OPB - Portland Public Schools Chief Human Resources Officer Sean Murray at a job fair last year.

Murray came to Portland Public Schools three years ago from a nearly five-year stretch as the HR director at the Portland Police Bureau.

Police and teachers are the two sectors of the workforce that seem to take the most heat for a lack of racial diversity.

A private person, Murray declined to talk about his experience recruiting police officers of color.

He also declined to comment on the experience of Erica Jones, an African-American PPS teacher recruited from Georgia but put on administrative leave last April. Jones felt so frustrated with what she saw as a lack of cultural acceptance at PPS that she she shared her story Willamette Week on Oct. 7, saying that her only mistake was believing PPS wanted her to succeed.

“I can’t comment on Erica Jones’ situation, but what I will say is we are always figuring out how to improve our process,” Murray says. He guesses that the district has lost two or three recruits of color in the last three years. The district employs 3,398 teachers, having hired 596 new ones this year. Of the new hires, 19.1 percent were nonwhite.

In 2013, the Oregon Legislature updated the Minority Teacher Act to require that by July 2015, school districts increase their minority teaching staff by 10 percent compared to 2012 levels. The state as a whole was unable to meet that goal, but PPS posted a 16 percent gain — from 554 educators of color to 644.

Building social relationships

PPS’ HR director puts a lot of emphasis on the need to build social connections for new recruits.

“As part of recruiting, it’s very essential that, for folks to stay, they have to have a social connection,” Murray says. “So, if you’re a candidate of color, how do you find that social connection in Portland? It’s very difficult. That’s our job, to help them do that.”

The district produces a resource guide that lists culturally specific services, such as places of worship, beauty salons and events. The district also organizes quarterly social gatherings for people of color and a mentorship program where newbies are paired with veteran teachers of the same cultural background.

The HR director says the district doesn’t offer social connection help to white candidates, because as members of the racial majority in Portland, they are already more easily able to find friends and cultural events that appeal to them.

Murray says Portland’s reputation makes it hard to recruit nonwhite candidates of any shade.

“When you see articles on the Internet like ‘Portland is the whitest city in the United States’ or ‘Portland is the best place for white people to live,’ trying to get someone to come from Atlanta, Chicago, L.A. — why would you leave your community to come here?”

While about 20 percent of PPS staff is nonwhite, more than 40 percent of the district’s students is nonwhite, according to the most recent data from the Oregon Department of Education.

Murray says that in order to sell the district to potential recruits, he opens up with those statistics. “All the sudden they go: ‘What? I didn’t know that.’ And then I say: ‘Every child deserves to see a teacher that looks like them.’”

“I’ve spoken to people who’ve said: ‘Gee, I’ve never had a black teacher, a black principal,” he says. “That shouldn’t be able to happen 10 years from now.”

Breaking stereotypes

Sometimes the district even has to recruit outside of the country, which can lead to costly visa fees. Murray estimates that a recent trip to Puerto Rico to find four Spanish-speaking teachers saved the district $20,000, because people from the unincorporated U.S. territory don’t need visas. The district is scheduled to go back in February.

Murray says the district has been behind the times in trying to close the gap between the number of teachers of color and the percentage of students of color.

The process sped up after the 2013-16 teacher contract was signed. The district used to have to go through three rounds of internal transfers before making a position open. Now, with only one round, the district is able to make a solid offer of employment to an external candidate, with a location specified later.

It’s difficult, though, for the district to break through the stereotype people of color might have about a career in teaching. After a lifetime of disenfranchisement, local students of color tend to feel ambivalent or negative about working in the school system.

Murray, who is African-American, says he mentors students of color at Portland State University.

“And I’m going: ‘Hey, why don’t you be a teacher?’ And because of their experience in the school system, it’s very difficult to recruit them,” he says. “But giving them an opportunity to be around teachers — to be around administrators — from the same culture, it begins to open their eyes and think about maybe there is an opportunity there.”

From the quantity of teachers of color Portland Public Schools has recruited to the city, to the pipeline Murray says he is trying to create for PPS students of color to think about careers in education, the efforts of the largest school district in Oregon could have an effect on who decides to stay and make a life in Portland and the state.

“We’re increasing the diversity in the city by the sheer numbers of the folks that we’re recruiting and hiring,” Murray says. “It will change the demographics of Portland, if you will.”

“I look at Portland Public Schools as a pipeline for recruiting teachers,” he adds. “There’s a greater opportunity that if you recruit folks from within Portland Public Schools, they are probably going to stay in the state of Oregon.”

Shasta Kearns Moore
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Update (1/6/15): Portland Public Schools clarified that its mentorship program is available to all teachers regardless of race.