A more diverse teaching staff would benefit all students, experts say

Enterprise file photo — Michael Koff

Farnsworth Middle School students from a variety of backgrounds — all volunteers at the Butterfly Station — earlier this month released the monarchs they had carefully cultivated.

More than a fifth of the students in Guilderland schools are black, Asian, Hispanic, or other minorities — a dramatic change from years past — but the vast majority of teachers and administrators are white. In Guilderland, as in the suburban Voorheesville and rural Berne-Knox-Westerlo districts where students remain almost entirely white, school leaders are aware of the importance of having diverse teachers.

Local schools are in line with nationwide trends, said David Johns, an adjunct professor at American University and, during the Obama administration, leader of a national initiative to improve the educational future of African-American students. Johns said that in every type of geographic area — urban, suburban, and rural — public-school teachers and leaders are overwhelmingly white.

“As a country we have to do much more work to assure that we are doing a better job of increasing diversity of all kinds, not just in terms of race, but also, for instance, teachers who are part of the LGBTQ community and individuals with disabilities,” he told The Enterprise.

Why teacher diversity matters

Teacher diversity benefits all students, said Johns. “It’s really important for all kids to see diverse educators conspiring for their success,” he said. He believes that these formative experiences help to turn children into adults who may be more trusting and less suspicious of others who are different from themselves.

For instance, he referenced a 2015 documentary called “3-½ Minutes, 10 Bullets,” which tells the story of Jordan Davis, a 17-year-old black teenager murdered in a parking lot, after an angry exchange of words, by a middle-aged man who thought his rap music was too loud.

“I’m convinced that if the man who shot Jordan Davis experienced a black man conspiring for his success when he was in school,” Johns said, “that that interaction would be different, and Jordan Davis would still be alive.”

Research shows that having diverse teachers also helps minority kids, Johns said. For African-American students, he said, having an African-American teacher increases by at least half the likelihood that they will be screened for and placed in courses for gifted-and-talented students. “In a world where, often, teachers are the deciding factor as to whether or not a student is deemed to have the skills required to test into gifted-and-talented courses, we know that race and ethnicity matter,” he said.

Ivory Toldson, a professor in Counseling Psychology at Howard University and the editor-in-chief of The Journal of Negro Education, cited another way that lack of diversity affects black children: Too often nowadays, elementary-school teachers disproportionately give black children disciplinary referrals for minor infractions like chewing gum, dress-code violations, cell-phone use, and minor disruption, he said, adding that these referrals can bring children to police officers stationed in the schools, which begins to funnel them into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Toldson also said that “black and brown kids” are too often sent to special-education programs that they don’t actually need. He said of teachers, “Sometimes they don’t understand the way that they relate culturally. They have their own racial biases. And, instead of looking at certain things like not paying attention as being a product of their own teaching system and their ability to connect with a child, they look at it as a child needs some type of special attention.”

Tracking diversity

As of 2016-17, white students make up 77.5 percent of the student body in the Guilderland school district, according to figures from the State Education Education. The same figures are 92.2 percent for Voorheesville and 96.3 percent at BKW.

At Guilderland, 3.6 percent of the student body is black or African-American, while 3.1 percent is multiracial, 3.4 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 12.3 percent is Asian, for a total minority percentage of 22.4.

Black students account for just 0.9 percent of Voorheesville’s student body, and that district has a total minority population of 7.5 percent.

Rural BKW’s minority student population is less than Voorheesville’s, at just 3.6 of the student body; just 0.9 percent, as at Voorheesville, is black.

Guilderland, Voorheesville, and Berne-Knox-Westerlo administrators all said that they do not track data on teacher race or ethnicity.

Spokeswoman Jeanne Beattie of the State Education Department said that NYSED used to track this data, but doesn’t anymore, and hasn’t in a “long time.” She did not know why the department stopped.

As a result, anecdotal information on diversity is the only way to get any sense of how teacher diversity compares to student diversity.

Guilderland Superintendent Marie Wiles was able to name, offhand, just three black employees in the district — one science teacher at the high school, one teaching assistant in an elementary school, and a technology specialist in the district office. In addition, she said, the district recently finished hiring and is in the middle of new-teacher orientation, and one new hire is “a very bright young man” who will teach social studies in the high school and who is African-American.

Mark Pitterson, an African-American who was born and raised in Jamaica, is the principal of BKW’s secondary school, Pitterson that the school had conducted a search during the last five months or so, to fill four positions, inviting in “quite a few people” for interviews. Of those, he said, “There was not one minority applicant, not one.”

It is not possible to tell an applicant’s ethnicity, Pitterson said, from the résumé or other application materials. Pitterson said he personally reads the résumés of every applicant applying for a job in his building.

Superintendent Brian Hunt said that at Voorheesville there are a few minority teachers, but not many.

Michael Bastian, Guilderland’s coordinator of data and information, said that, while the district does not track race or ethnicity, it does track gender, and that 405 of its teachers are women and 113 are men.

Recruiting

Guilderland uses Online Education System for Educators to recruit teachers; OLAS is an online platform used statewide to search for educational jobs or applicants. Wiles noted that OLAS doesn’t include any indicator of race or ethnicity.

Wiles said that the district is limited by the parameters of what it can ask for on OLAS, and she noted that Guilderland’s job announcements on the platform always include mention of the district’s nondiscrimination policy. People apply on OLAS for the first round of screening, and then the district asks selected applicants — for instance, eight or 10 people out of hundreds — to fill out an application, which “allows people to write about their educational philosophy.”

Wiles said she always asks, in the one-on-one interviews with the handful of applicants who get that far, about their experience with and philosophy of working with diverse populations. She asks candidates about working with students from different socioeconomic backgrounds and ability levels and with students whose first language is not English.

“In the interview process, we try to make sure we’re hiring people who will be skilled at working with a diverse population,” Wiles said.

In addition, if school is in session, the district tries to have a candidate teach a class “with real kids,” Wiles said, “so it’s not a hypothetical.” In that situation, she said, administrators try to select a class that is diverse in various ways.

Toldson suggests that administrators can look at résumés and cover letters for indicators that applicants have experience with a diverse population, and can ask, as part of the initial application, about candidates’ “philosophy of working with the culturally different.”

Toldson said that he does not advocate a quota system, but believes it’s important to find people who have experience working with diverse groups, who convey love and respect for diversity, and who have experience and knowledge about pedagogy that can accommodate African-American and Hispanic students. If applicants are able to do that, he said “I don’t care what color they are.”

Similarly, Johns said, “While doing the work of diversifying the workforce, which can take a long time, we should be clear that there are a number of educators of a variety of colors, race, and ethnicities, including white educators, that do a good job.” More can be done, though, he said.

“We have a very rigorous hiring practice. We care deeply about hiring people to work with the children who show up here each day, and the children who show up here each day are becoming more and more diverse, so we need to serve all kids — every last one of them — to the very best of our ability,” Wiles said.

Perusal of job announcements by different school districts in the Capital Region show that school districts have leeway in how to describe their job openings. Guilderland’s note the position, start date, application deadline, and minimum qualifications, and state that selected candidates will be contacted for interviews. The notices also include a nondiscrimination disclaimer.

By comparison, announcements of jobs in the Albany school district all start with, “The mission of the City School District of Albany is to educate and prepare all students for college and career, citizenship and life, in partnership with our diverse community,” before going on to describe the district and the position. Albany also adds a nondiscrimination policy.

There were no Berne-Knox-Westerlo job announcements currently up on OLAS.

Voorheesville had one listing posted on OLAS, for a long-term substitute classroom teacher, which gave only the name of the position and the start and end dates and then referred applicants to the school website. The school website’s employment section gave a more detailed job description.

The description listed seven qualifications including “experience with primary-age students necessary” and “dedicated to teaching and to students,” but mentioned nothing about ability to work with students from diverse backgrounds. The announcement did end by saying that the district is “an equal opportunity, affirmative action employer.”

Seeing the future

“As far as staff diversity is concerned, my perspective is that maybe minority applicants are just not applying up here,” said Pitterson of Berne-Knox-Westerlo. “We have a very small minority student population, and I think that the reason for that, too, is because up here in Berne, most of the families living here have been around for generations.”

He also noted that, with a lack of new housing and public houses, it’s unlikely “to have people moving into a small rural community. And especially when minorities find that, well, it’s not a very diverse community, people have a problem with that.

“So we do have a very, very small minority population,” he concluded. In the BKW secondary school, there were 383 students as of 2016-17, with 371 of them, or 96.9 percent, white.

Pitterson said that he has not done any targeted recruitment to try to increase minority hiring — for instance, contacting predominantly minority colleges — for two reasons: He started in the position just last year, and with a district with as negligible a minority population as BKW has, the justification “is not really there.” Pitterson concluded, “We’re not really growing in terms of minorities. So it’s not where we can see that there is an obvious need.”

Hunt said that Voorheesville’s job announcements always make a clear statement that the district does not discriminate, and asks for people to describe their experience.

The Voorheesville district does not recruit from particular schools, but “OLAS is statewide and it’s probably the system that casts the widest net,” Hunt said. “We attract applicants from all over the state,” he said, adding, “I think we’re attractive as a place to work.”