Suburban schools aim to increase staff diversity to mirror students

Elgin Area School District U-46 is the state's second-largest, and one of the most diverse — 68 percent of its more than 40,000 students are ethnic minorities.

But they're being taught by mostly white teachers. That's reflected in a 45.7 percentage point gap between the portion of minority students and that of minority teachers.

While that makes U-46 near the top of suburban school districts with the biggest gaps in diversity between students and teachers, the district is hardly alone, a Daily Herald analysis of statewide school data shows.

Among suburban school districts, these diversity gaps range from a 10 to 75-percentage-point difference.

In East Aurora Unit District 131, which is virtually all minority students, there is a 71.4 percentage point gap. In Schaumburg Township Elementary District 54, it's 40.6. In Naperville Unit District 203, it's 25.8.

In fact, only in small districts with low minority student populations are there not double-digit percentage gaps between portions of minority students and those of their teachers.

Districts with some of the highest percentages of minority students are stepping up recruitment efforts to hire and train more diverse teachers and support staff members to mirror their students.

Bridging that gap is high on U-46's priority list, said Melanie Meidel, U-46 assistant superintendent of human resources.

Of the district's 7,271 employees, 78 percent are white, 15 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are black. The district is reaching out to more diverse college job fairs to widen its pool of candidates, Meidel said.

Many suburban school districts are starting to realize they need to find more creative ways to recruit and retain minorities, while educating existing employees on understanding and more effectively communicating with students of different races and cultures.

Palatine Township Elementary District 15 — which has a 44-percentage-point difference between its minority students and minority teachers — has developed a diverse pool of program assistants, some of whom went on to become teachers in the district. The district also provides intercultural training for its principals, new teachers and interns, and is developing core curriculum supporting cultural diversity.

At Round Lake Area Unit District 116, which has the widest gap — 75 percentage points — between minority students and teachers, officials are now holding hiring managers accountable for giving serious consideration to qualified minority candidates for existing vacancies.

“With the exception of the administrators group, we have not been as successful in attracting qualified (minority candidates) who are underrepresented in the district,” said Lee Palmer, executive director of human resources. “Moving forward, we must make a concerted effort to reach out to underrepresented group members and create a work environment that is both welcoming and culturally receptive, sensitive, and inclusive in order to facilitate a truly diverse workforce.”

Few minority teachers

Experts say finding qualified, minority teaching candidates can be a challenge, and diversity education is an uphill battle against entrenched stereotypes.

Nationally, there is a shortage of minority teachers because not enough of them go into teaching — partly because of their own negative school experiences and also because careerwise, there are more attractive opportunities outside the education field, experts say. Eighty-three percent of public school teachers are white, while blacks and Hispanics each make up 7 percent, and Asians about 1 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics 2011 report.

Illinois has only 11 percent teachers of color, while the statewide nonwhite student population is at 46 percent, according to a November 2011 report by the Center for American Progress.

“That was eye-opening for me because we realized that we needed to be really strategic about places where we can find teachers from diverse backgrounds,” said Cheryl Moore, human resources director at Naperville Unit District 203.

Moore said the district is attending job fairs at state and community colleges that draw more minority candidates. The strategy appears to be paying off.

“We are seeing more candidates from diverse backgrounds apply,” Moore said. “We've got more (diverse) student teachers coming out to do student teaching with us.”

More than 20 states have differences of 25 percentage points or more between the diversity of their teacher and student populations, according to the American Progress report.

Lack of diversity among public school educators is one of the biggest problems districts face, said Darlene Von Behren, assistant superintendent for personnel and human services for District 15.

“We don't have the deep pools (of minority candidates),” she said. “Going into education is not a first choice for minorities at this point in time.”

Moreover, she added, minorities who do take up teaching often choose to work in low-income, urban school districts with predominantly minority student populations.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than half of all public school minority teachers work in high-poverty schools, whereas white teachers typically flock to suburban schools with low poverty and lower minority populations.

Von Behren said school districts ideally should hire teachers who serve as role models for all students, but it's more important for all educators to have meaningful communication with students and move from tolerating diversity to accepting and adapting to different cultures.

District 15 administrators and teachers are given intercultural competency training to improve communications and relate more effectively with students from all over the world — “so teachers can learn how to work in a global community,” Von Behren said.

“You don't necessarily have representations from every cultural group,” she said. “To have people interact across race is important. If my principals are more understanding of cultural competency, they will be looking for teachers who are more culturally competent. By increasing your understanding of other cultures, then you will be building a pool of students that want to come back and teach.”

Finding talent within

Some districts are tapping into their own minority student populations to find future employees.

District 15 has bilingual program assistants, and many of their students are now considering going into teaching themselves, Von Behren said.

“We hire a significant group of our teachers from that pool for the bilingual program,” she said.

U-46's Meidel said the district has hired more Latinos in response to the increase in the Hispanic population in its 11 communities, partially by tapping into the district's Latino students participating in U-46's Future Teachers Club, designed to cultivate talent from within.

The club promotes supervised activities in which students interested in becoming professional educators get to spend time in the classroom teaching other students.

Meidel said U-46 now tracks how many graduates return to teach or for other jobs within the district. The district has an unwritten policy that the top 2 percent of students in each graduating class has a job with the district no matter what college degree they earn. The idea is with more minorities graduating from U-46, they see the district as a desirable place to work, she said.

U-46 also is training department heads and anyone with hiring responsibilities — principals, administrators, supervisors, directors — to screen candidate pools differently.

“We are in the process of developing a more comprehensive plan for (diversity recruitment),” said Meidel, adding that the strategy needs to go beyond posting jobs on various recruitment sites. “The thing that we need to do is be intentional.”

Officials have started using tools such as LinkedIn Recruiter — an online global recruitment and networking site for employers — to tap into a larger pool of candidates. They're also working to improve partnerships with more than 30 universities statewide and draw talent from area communities.

But nothing, Meidel said, can replace the value of old-fashioned, face-to-face interaction at job fairs to prescreen minority candidates.

“We're going to be reaching out to a further diverse population of universities and colleges and invite student teachers from those universities,” she said. “We're one of the larger businesses in the Elgin area. It is something we need to address. We want to support our neighboring communities.”

Step forward/step back activity illustrates marginalization

  Nathaniel Evans works with Felix Feliciano and other kindergartners at Gifford Elementary School in Elgin. Nathaniel is a member of the Future Teachers Club of Larkin High School. Laura Stoecker/
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