Step 1: District Spotlight
Encourage school boards to signal and embrace the importance of teacher and
school leader diversity.
Valley Stream School District 30 in Long Island works to ensure that diversity is not just a buzzword in a board policy, but a real reflection of its personnel.
When Superintendent Nick Stirling was appointed in 2012, the school board was already concerned about the lack of diversity among staff in the district. Fostering more diversity was part of the district’s strategic plan, but Stirling didn’t feel the district was doing enough to meet that objective.
Since then, Stirling has worked with the board to make sure issues of representation and inclusiveness are front and center. Since the board sets the tone for the rest of the district, Stirling said it’s critical that diversity issues are included consistently across a district’s strategic plan, mission statement, and vision statement.
“We revised our vision statement a year ago because we professed diversity but it wasn’t explicit in our vision statement, so we made sure to make it explicit because the vision statement lasts longer than the people in the positions,” he said.
The district also included diversity issues throughout its District Beliefs, including “Diversity should be embraced, appreciated and respected in curriculum, staffing, and educational philosophy.”
Stirling and the board also work to ensure that a focus on diversity remains a priority across district operations. Together, they have targeted what Stirling calls “institutional roadblocks,” such as hiring committees.
“If your interview committee is not diverse in itself, any diverse candidate who comes to sit in front of you, will question you,” he said. “You say you want diversity, but your interview committee is not even diverse so what message are you sending to the candidate?”
Stirling thinks these lessons are relevant for boards in all school districts. “It’s very important for a Board of Education to see the importance of diversity as a means to uplifting, upgrading, expanding opportunity for all children, regardless of demographics of a district,” Stirling said.
Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown and the school board have made increasing staff diversity one of the goals in their strategic plan to promote equity.
Board members also play a hands-on role in teacher improvement and retention efforts. Those who serve on the human resources committee meet annually to discuss every non-tenured teacher, including how the district can best support employees as they develop professionally.
“We focus on supporting teachers and learning more about their strengths and areas in need of most development,” Brown said. “If there are issues, how can we rally to support them, to get them to the level of expertise that we’re expecting in our school district?”
One of the other ways Ithaca strives for equity is through the efforts of the Recruitment and Retention Officer, an assistant superintendent-level position the board created to focus in particular on staff of color. These efforts start early, Brown said.
“We’ve been identifying current high school students in our district, people who we’ve identified as potential candidates,” he said.
The district then invests in and tracks these students throughout their college careers.
“We provide them mentors, we bring them back on trips, and we recruit them not just during the spring of their senior year of college but starting their first semester in their first year,” Brown said.
The board and Brown are currently partnering with the Ithaca Public Education Initiative, the district’s fundraising arm, on the Aspiring Educators Award Program, which will support these promising high school candidates with college scholarships.
“You can’t start too early,” Brown said. “I’ve been here almost nine years, and I’ve seen people who were in middle school when I started now coming back to work in our schools.”
While the district also recruits external candidates, Brown added that “growing our own means a lot more to us.”
In the Schenectady City School District, Superintendent Larry Spring says that “the mantra inside the district is that race, economics, and disability should no longer be predictors for student achievement.”
Of the three factors, Spring said race is the one the board and he tackle as publicly as possible. Of the over 9,000 students in Schenectady public schools, about 31% are Black, 23% are White, 21% are Latino, and 18% are Asian.
Spring says the goal is not just to develop a more diverse staff but for the community to understand why that is a goal. To drive that deeper conversation, the board has taken several steps, such as calculating whether Black students were disproportionately more likely to be suspended than White students. (They were.)
The board also read and hosted public discussions about two diversity-related books: Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There by Richard Milner, the director of the Center of Urban Education at the University of Pittsburgh, and A Colony in A Nation, by MSNBC host Chris Hayes.
It sends a message, Spring said, “when the public can see, and when the staff can see the board is reading this book, the board is having this conversation, the board is saying this phrase, and then the board is saying, ‘More diversity would be a better thing.’”
In addition, the board created a position focused on recruitment and diversity and charged the person in that position with seeking new pathways for diverse hires. For instance, instead of attending hiring fairs where most attendees tend to be White, this new position is focused on building relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
To show the public how much progress they’re making on this goal, the board and Spring began tracking and publishing annual data about the diversity of its new hires and retained staff.
“We have to have a teacher workforce that’s going to be inclined to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Why do we do it that way? That’s going to feel a certain way to some kids,’” Spring said. “We have to have folks who are going to help us be aware and help us work through these issues.”
The board members and Spring have also publicly supported affinity groups, recognizing these safe spaces as a welcome place for educators of color as well as a helpful feedback loop for a district continuously trying to improve on this issue.
“One of the things that I think makes our district attractive to teachers and administrators of color is that [the board and I] take a less neutral approach,” Spring said. “In lots of places, there’s this notion that as a school district leader, you have to be neutral. And I say pretty publicly that neutrality empowers the oppressor. And we have systems in place, not by our intentional design, but in our own system we can see from the data that there are certain populations of kids that get oppressed or get disadvantaged and trying to be neutral only makes you complicit. Therefore, we’re going to be vocal. I’m going to be vocal. I tell folks, ‘You don’t get to work here and not be an activist.’”