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Teacher diversity gap’ cause for concern in CCSD schools

Three of four teachers in minority-majority district are white

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Paul Takahashi

Fitzgerald Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Danita Britt participates in a summer training session. The Clark County School District is trying to increase the number of teachers of color, such as Britt, to lessen its “teacher diversity gap.”

Updated Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012 | 5:34 p.m.

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The likelihood that students of color in Nevada will have a teacher who looks like them is among the lowest in the nation, according to a recent report.

Even as Nevada’s student population becomes more ethnically diverse, the state’s teaching staff is still predominantly white. In the Clark County School District – which educates the majority of Nevada children – 70 percent of students are nonwhite while 76 percent of its licensed educators are white.

In fact, Nevada’s “teacher diversity gap” is the second largest in the nation, surpassed only by California, according to an Education Week report released last month.

Although the School District has a higher percentage of minority teachers (24 percent) than the national average of 17 percent, the widening gap is troubling among educators who believe children of color benefit academically from being taught by teachers of the same ethnic or racial background.

“This is a huge concern and area of focus for us,” said Staci Vesneske, the School District’s human resources director. “It’s a huge concern that in general we don’t have enough teachers of color teaching our students.”

A small body of research suggests the children of color are more responsive and do better academically when taught by teachers of color. Often, teachers of color are better able to relate with children of color, referring to shared cultural references and traditions to engage them.

However, these positive benefits aren’t limited to minority teachers and it doesn’t mean minority students require minority teachers to learn, said Greta Peay, director of the district’s equity and diversity education department.

“Will students feel better if they see someone of color in front of the classroom?” Peay asked. “Yes, that has some value, an adage to it.

“But any teacher who is culturally sensitive, knows the background of students and is open to working with them – regardless of their ethnicity – can reach minority students and do well,” Peay continued. “You don’t have to look, talk and walk like your students to teach them.”

•••

Click to enlarge photo

Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones thanked teachers and principals for their efforts to increase student achievement at a news conference on Monday, June 4, 2012. The School District announced – erroneously – that its graduation rate improved to 65 percent, from 59 percent the previous year.

However, with a burgeoning population of Hispanic and Asian students, School District officials are worried students won’t have minority teachers to look up to as role models.

It’s not that children of color require instruction from teachers of color, Vesneske said. Rather, it’s that schools and students of all backgrounds benefit when there is diversity among educators.

“It’s the morally right thing to do, to ensure that our students have role models of color,” she said. “It’s so important not only for our kids, but our organization. We want a diversity of thought.”

In the past two decades – as Las Vegas’ student population became majority-minority – the School District and its board have been served by a few leaders of color.

The district – which previously had a Hispanic superintendent and deputy superintendent – is currently led by Superintendent Dwight Jones, the district’s second black superintendent. The board – which is predominantly white – had Hispanic members and is currently chaired by Linda Young, its first black president.

These leaders of color – as well as their white counterparts – have championed for increased minority recruitment as well as multicultural training among educators in the district.

However, while the ranks of nonwhite teachers have risen, that growth hasn’t kept pace with the increase in nonwhite students nationally. That explains why the “teacher diversity gap” in Clark County remains stubbornly persistent.

But trying to close this diversity gap hasn’t been without great effort, officials said.

“This district is committed to narrowing that gap so that the workforce mirrors the population it serves,” Peay said.

•••

The School District has always struggled to attract qualified teachers of color.

It’s a problem not unique to Clark County, said Christine Clark, a professor of curriculum and instruction at UNLV’s College of Education.

“This is a national issue,” Clark said. “Everyone is competing for those teachers (of color), but the pool (of qualified candidates) is small. We need to do a better job of making the teaching profession interesting to more diverse teachers.”

Part of the dearth in minority teachers can be explained by lower college attendance among minority high school students.

According to the Center for American Progress’ 2011 report on increasing teacher diversity, only 56 percent of black high school graduates and 64 percent of Hispanic high school graduates go to college. The ones who go often struggle to finish.

With fewer than half of black and Hispanic students graduating in six years, the number of eligible candidates for the teaching field, which requires a college degree and extensive licensure, has minimized.

Furthermore, minority students often are driven toward more lucrative majors and careers to pay off the high cost of college, said Doris Watson, a professor of educational psychology and higher education at UNLV’s College of Education.

“Teaching salaries are low,” Watson said. For students of color – some of who are first-generation college students – "teaching isn’t supported by their families. They want their children to have more earning power.”

•••

One of the reasons the diversity gap has persisted in the School District is because regional colleges and universities have struggled to produce enough minority teacher candidates.

That has been apparent at UNLV’s College of Education, which is the School District’s largest source of teachers. Although the college has been successful at accelerating its graduates, its production of minority teachers has lagged.

Even though UNLV was named among the 10 most diverse universities in the country by U.S. News and World Report, its College of Education is much less diverse.

Whereas 60 percent of UNLV’s undergraduate students are from minority backgrounds, the college is 60 percent white.

“We’re very concerned about the diversity of our college,” said William Speer, dean. “Sadly, we’re not as diverse as the university as a whole, which is doing quite well.”

Complicating matters are UNLV’s budget cuts. Since the recession, the College of Education lost more than 60 percent of its funding. Its six departments have been cut to three. Its faculty, which once numbered 110 strong, has been whittled to 80.

Currently, there are just 10 professors of color in the entire college, down about 50 percent, Clark said.

Still, the college has maintained its commitment to diversity education, offering about 10 courses to help fledgling teachers engage students of color.

UNLV also has partnered with community programs to recruit minority students into teaching. One notable program, called the Teach Program, helps juniors and seniors at Clark High School consider teaching as a profession by offering college-level education courses, mentoring and campus visits to UNLV.

“We can’t do enough,” Speer said of the college’s diversity recruitment efforts. “We can always do more.”

•••

Despite these challenges, the School District has worked to increase its percentage of minority hires. This year, about 30 percent of the district’s nearly 300 new educators were teachers of color, Vesneske said.

Next year, the district’s human resources department hopes to increase its share of minority hires to 35 percent.

This isn’t about making and meeting quotas, however. It’s about making sure the district’s recruitment efforts are targeted to allow for a more diverse candidate pool, Vesneske stressed.

Teachers of color, like all teachers, “still need to meet our standards,” she said.

However, efforts to recruit quality teachers of color nationally has been hobbled by the district’s hiring practices and state policies, Vesneske said.

Although the district has attended a number of career fairs to meet candidates from historically black colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions, those efforts have been thwarted by the district’s inability to extend early offers to candidates.

That’s because there is too much uncertainty in the district’s budget – looming cuts and arbitration – to jump quickly on hiring diverse candidates, Peay said.

“We can’t compete with some of these large districts that can offer contracts right on the spot,” Peay said.

And while about 30 states offers incentives to lure minority teachers, Nevada only offers incentives in hiring hard-to-fill positions, such as math, science and special education teachers.

In addition, Nevada’s Alternative Routes to Licensure – which proponents say allows mid-career, minority professionals to become teachers – is too complicated and has too many requirements, Vesneske said.

“We really believe that people who are content-matter experts, have life experience and can learn on the job can bring a lot to the classroom,” she said. “We hope the state makes changes so ARL is easier for more people.”

Moreover, it’s been difficult to shake the negative perceptions of Las Vegas’ education system, Peay said.

Austerity measures have led to cuts, such as a reduction in the number of English Language Learner facilitators. The ongoing arbitration over teacher contracts hasn’t helped. Neither has the voters’ decision to strike down additional funding for school maintenance and libraries.

“(Some candidates) don’t realize that Las Vegas even has a school district,” Peay lamented.

Still, Las Vegas’ distinction as a cultural melting pot has been a boon for the district’s minority recruitment efforts, Vesneske said.

“Because Las Vegas is a diverse community, individuals of color are now wanting to come here,” she said. “They are less likely to go to some other communities where they will be among people who don’t look like them.”

•••

Once teachers of color are hired, districts across the country have found it difficult to retain them.

Minority teachers often flock to urban and at-risk schools where they face more challenges and risk burnout, the Center for American Progress report found.

That’s why the School District has launched a variety of professional development opportunities geared at helping teachers of all backgrounds connect with children of color.

In September 2011, the School Board – despite facing a multimillion budget deficit – approved $74,000 for multicultural training for about 350 teachers last school year. Zaner-Bloser, an education materials publisher, provided 18 days of professional development and materials, as well as a $313-an-hour consultant to deliver the training.

This training didn’t come without some controversy over its cost, but the School Board overwhelmingly approved it because the training would help teachers teach subjects highlighting different cultures and backgrounds.

During the school year, Peay’s staff of five diversity experts offers about 10 cultural sensitivity workshops each month to teachers district-wide. The equity and diversity department also conducts several conferences including one in the summer to promote cultural awareness among teachers.

The district focuses these sessions on new teachers in particular because research has shown teachers often leave the profession within their first five years on the job, Peay said.

In these diversity sessions, teachers learn how to work with a variety of students, including students of color or poverty, English Language Learners, special education students and gay and transgender students.

“We want teachers to reflect on their personal biases and stereotypes,” Peay said. “Sometimes, you might not know about it until it comes out one day. You have to find a way to adjust your bias in the classroom, because it’s still your responsibility to teach them.”

In recent years, there has been a heavy request from teachers on how to connect with Hispanic and African American male students, often from white female teachers who constitute the majority of Clark County educators.

Peay gives teachers tips, such as using interactive activities and a variety of teaching techniques to engage students. Above all, teachers must treat all students equally – regardless of their background, she said.

“Students can detect whether their teacher is interested in teaching them,” Peay said. “You’ve got to have high expectations that these students can learn the same materials and teach them to the same standards.”

CORRECTION: Dwight Jones is the second black superintendent of the Clark County School District. Claude Perkins was the first. | (November 26, 2012)

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