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Staff diversity: A tough assignment for East Multnomah County Schools

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - First-grade teacher Julia Coats works with her students at Margaret Scott Elementary School during a recent morning session.It’s no secret the largest school districts in East Multnomah County are becoming increasingly more diverse. A glance into classrooms also shows school districts are finding it nearly impossible to hire teachers who look or speak like the students they teach.

Boosting the diversity of the teacher workforce “is a very important goal in our district,” said Centae Richards, director of equity and compliance at Reynolds School District, which is rated the state’s eighth most diverse district. “It is a moral obligation for us.”

The three big East Multnomah County school districts — Gresham-Barlow, Reynolds and Centennial — all have strategies in place to recruit more culturally and linguistically diverse teachers, but so far they have not had much luck.

A student who is culturally or linguistically diverse can easily go through 12 years of schooling and never have a teacher who looks like, or speaks like, they do.

Of course, East Multnomah County is not alone.

Concerns about the statewide problem led the Oregon Legislature to pass a bill in 1991 requiring districts to report on their progress in hiring educators of color or whose first language is not English.

“In 2014-15, Oregon’s students of color made up 36.4 percent of the K-12 population, but only 8.5 percent of Oregon’s teacher workforce was non-white, with the most notable difference existing between Hispanic students (22.4 percent) and Latino teachers (3.9 percent),” the 2015 Oregon Educator Equity Report said.

“Districts with the most notable student diversity have an even greater responsibility to achieve a more diverse workforce,” the report said.

Local statistics sobering

In the Reynolds district, 34 percent of students are white in kindergarden through third grade, but 92 percent of teachers white. About 41 percent of Reynolds kindergarten- through third-grade students are Hispanic or Latino, compared with only 5 percent of teachers. At Reynolds High School, 10 percent of the students and only 1 percent of teachers are Asian.

The Reynolds district was unable to supply statistics regarding teachers hired for the 2015-16 school year.

At Centennial, the 15th most-diverse district in the state, 95 percent of the kindergarten- through third grade teachers are white, while only 47 percent of the students are white. About 26 percent of the kindergarten- through third-grade students are Hispanic, 11 percent Asian and 7 percent black. This year the Centennial district hired 52 teachers and administrators and 43 of them identified themselves as white.

It is not much different in the Gresham-Barlow district. In grades four and five, 97 percent of the teachers are white, while 29 percent of the students are Hispanic, 6 percent are multi-racial and 3 percent are black. Gresham-Barlow district officials said that of the 80 teachers they hired this year, 7.5 percent identified themselves as diverse.

Why worry about color?

There are benefits for students of color or linguistic diversity to be taught by teachers who look or speak like they do. For example, students see role models of career and academic success, and studies show teachers of color have improved test scores of diverse students, the state report said.

And all students benefit from having a diverse faculty.

“It’s good for the white kids too,” said Richards, who is black and sports dreadlocked hair. “When I first started, some of the kids were kind of afraid of me.”

Teacher recruitment

The districts are working on a variety of fronts to attract teacher candidates who would bring a higher level of diversity.

For one thing, they attend job fairs in Oregon and out of state.

“One strategy that we use is to post jobs on a variety of websites that will advertise to a diverse group of candidates,” said Randy Bryant, executive director of human resources in the Gresham-Barlow District.

Centennial is working on a broad program to recruit and retain a diverse faculty and staff. Paul Coakley, human resources director, said one thing the district is doing is “trying to diversify the hiring committee, by adding community partners and current staff” that might work well with diverse job candidates.

Diversity from within

The districts are perhaps most successful in growing their own culturally or linguistically diverse teachers. Districts often begin by recruiting educational assistants, sometimes from among parents at the school. Then, they help these educational assistants get their teaching degrees and licenses.

“The educational assistants are already in the classroom,” Richards said.

Districts even try to inspire high school students to go into teaching and return to their old schools.

“We’re doing both,” said Reynolds’ Richards. “We’re looking at innovative ways to capture their interest and then get them back to the district.”

The districts also try to recruit diverse secretaries and other staff members who work with students and their families.

“The office staff often have the first interactions with parents and families when they enter our schools,” Bryant noted.

Some schools have community liaisons, often someone who speaks another language. “These folks are critical when language is a problem. They are extremely successful and beneficial to our school,” Bryant said.

Gresham-Barlow has formed a superintendent’s advisory committee on equity that began meeting in the 2014-15 school year. Part of its mission is “to look at our hiring practices, and included in that will be recruiting teachers that look more like our student population,” the committee’s mission statement said.

The Reynolds district created Richards’ position two years ago, in part, to create better success in recruiting more minority teachers.

Few in the pipeline

But, it is difficult for the school district to lure diverse teachers into their buildings because not enough college students of color are choosing teaching as a career. In the 2012-13 school year, 16.1 percent of students enrolled in teacher education programs at Oregon colleges were culturally or linguistically diverse.

For the school year 2013-14, Portland State University, which produces the most teachers in the state, had the highest ratio of minority teachers in the pipeline. Of the 169 education students at PSU, 43 or 18.3 percent, were minority. At the other end of the spectrum was Western Oregon University, which had the lowest percentage of diverse-education students at 6.0 percent, or 11 of their 135 students.

Concordia University, the Oregon private college that produces the most teachers, reported 12.1 percent of its 157 education students were minorities.

“I spend a lot of time dispelling a lot of myths,” said Tara Cooper, program coordinator for Portland State University’s Teacher Pathways program, which supports culturally diverse education students.

Cooper said many minority students think teachers are not paid well. But when you ask them, they don’t really know how much teachers make.

Also, many students of color did not have positive experiences in school themselves and are not attracted to the profession.

“If the K-12 curriculum doesn’t reflect them, then it is hard for them to picture themselves a part of that. If all they learn in school about black people is slavery, they say ‘Why would I want to be a part of that?’”

But Cooper said she counters by asking them how their experience might have been different if they’d had inspiring minority teachers.

“That’s an ‘a-ha’ moment for some,” Cooper said.

The state report also suggests that districts develop and maintain relationships with “culturally and linguistically diverse organizations, institutions and groups who represent or are connected to potential candidates for employment.”

All the schools are also working with current teachers so they will become more culturally sensitive. But the goal of increasing diversity on the teaching staff remains.

“It will take some really intentional work” to get more diversity in the pipeline, PSU’s Cooper said.

The bottom line? All the schools are seeking to find and retain the very best teachers possible.

“We want not only (education) students of color,” Richards said, “but people who have a passion for teaching.”