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Oregon Moves Slowly to Fill Minority Teacher Gap

Jacob Lewin

Nationally half of all public school students are minorities.  Just 18-percent of teachers are people of color.  In Oregon, the disparity is even greater, although efforts are underway to close the gap.

She's only a high school senior, but Sandra Franco is taking a course at North Salem High on how to become a teacher:

"I've been wanting to become a teacher. I had the idea ever since I was little because my parents don't know how to read and write in English or Spanish, and I always had that goal to teach them how to write.  I would grab my white board and put it in front of them."

She succeeded. Franco is one of a hundred students in a teacher cadet program in Salem.  The program is one of many examples of what are called grow-your-own, as school districts face a shortage of teachers.  A subset of the problem:  Only nine percent of Oregon teachers are minorities, while 37-percent of the students are--and that last figure is expected to increase to 50-percent within 20 years.  Francisco Ramos and Juan Perez are also cadets:

"I was fine working a manual labor job, just like my dad, but then the teacher that helped change me, he convinced me that I had a lot more potential, so I want to teach that to students as well."

"I would also see coaches and male teachers as a parent figure I never had and I feel like I want to be that to other students."

The Salem-Keizer School District also offers to pay for schooling for teacher aides who have bachelor's degrees and want to get teaching licenses. Half of the district's students are minorities compared to ten percent of its teachers.

"The disparity is huge."

Shadiin García, with the Chalkboard Project's Teach Oregon program, believes having more minority teachers is beneficial to all students:

"Same race teachers have higher expectations.  Students benefit from seeing same-race role models. What's just as crucial is understanding the power of a diverse society.  You want students to have exposure to different ways of being and knowing."

Karen Gray, Superintendent in the Parkrose School District in Portland, heads a state committee on equity in education.  She says progress to close the gap has been slow:

"Just getting across the graduation stage as a high schooler prepared for college and career readiness.  I think it starts in k-12."

Mark Girod, Dean of the College of Education at Western Oregon University, goes out and personally recruits bilingual latino high school students:

"I spend a lot of time driving up and down the valley talking to high school students who are both bilingual and bicultural about a profession as an educator.  And the truth of it is, if you're a high flyer successful young person who happens also to be bilingual and bicultural, there's a lot of opportunities for you in the world."

Minority students who do go to college disproportionately avoid going into teaching.  When they do get licensed to teach, Chalkboard Project has found there can be implicit discrimination in hiring. Mark Girod says it can be subtle:

"When people say well, we're just concerned about the fit for this person, let's make sure that's not code for that person doesn't look like us, or talk like us, or think like us."

One of the offshoots of having few minority teachers and many minority students is that some students may be misidentified as disabled, according to Shadiin García:

"Disproportionality  of students of color in special education is by far one of the most important issues to touch and one that people are the most afraid to touch."

It is mostly white teachers who are assigning minority kids to special education. Western Oregon's Girod cites a studyof Native American kids in Oregon:

"Caucasian educators expressed concerns about Native American students who didn't look their educators in the eye, didn't respond when asked questions, and later came to find out that these are signs of respect in this Native American community."

There has been a small increase in minority hiring in recent years, but Parkrose Superintendent Karen Gray says there's still a retention problem:

"Even when people get hired, they're not staying.  All teachers as a group don't stay, but teachers of color stay less."

Rosemary Mba is an English teacher in Salem and advisor to the teacher cadets.  She is one of 14 black teachers in a district of 25-hundred educators. She has not felt discriminated against, but she can see why minority teachers would leave:

"Most of us want to teach because we want our kids to see what success looks like.  But there's so much pressure on us to make our kids succeed that we are emotionally tired because we invest so much in the kids. It's like if they fail, that means we have failed."

As for the kids, she says at first they note that she looks different, but very soon they don't see her color anymore.