View From The Top

Representation of educators of color is at its worst in the highest district office, where just a small percentage of more than 700 school district superintendents in the state are Latino or Black. District leaders from across the state share their own experiences in education, and offer ideas for how to diversify the profession.

A call to action

Constance Evelyn

Superintendent, Valley Stream Union Free // School District 13

“We should stop talking about it in a way that the conversation starts and then stops at, ‘This is an issue.’ We should be doing something about it.”

Did you have any educators of color when you were in school?

I did. I went to school at P.S. 80 in Jamaica Queens. And I had Dr. Margaret Green as my principal – an African American principal in New York City at the time, which was fairly unheard of. And found out later that she grew up in Harlem with my parents and migrated to Queens just as they did, which was the suburbs at that time.

I also had Mrs. Perault, who was my fifth-grade teacher, and Mrs. Lagron, my second-grade teacher. Again, two very strong African American female teachers who really required from their students excellence and exposed us to opportunities, rigorous opportunities, that were critical in moving forward in a way that put us on a path for accelerated opportunities at the secondary level.

What impact did those teachers have?

Mrs. Perault, my fifth-grade teacher, changed my life, for sure. I was still a very shy person. Top student in the school, and she made sure that I had experiences beyond what the fifth-grade curriculum would offer because she saw something in me. Even something I didn’t even see in myself.

She was just critical. She looked like me. She was a fair skinned black woman. Very strong. And when I looked at her everyday up there in front of the classroom it just convinced me that everything she was telling me was the truth. That I could achieve at the highest levels because she had done it.

Describe your experience as an educator of color.

It’s had its emotional ups and downs, but for the most part it’s been extremely rewarding. And there have been some challenges. Often times I’ve been the educator in the district as the only person of color, or one of two people of color, who had an education, certificates, etc., teaching children. And, again, that can present some challenges, but it can also be very rewarding in terms of making sure that people understand that you are there because you’re qualified to be there and understanding what culture you come from and sharing that culture with other educators in your midst.

I think that the way that you overcome this lack of access or lack of equity to accessing these jobs is really just by performing at the highest levels. Just talking about it, I think, shines a light on it in a way that sometimes can become very negative. And so the way that you overcome this is when you land the job as a person of color you perform at the highest levels and you hold the door open in that way for people coming behind you.

How can school boards address this issue?

Local boards, and again I can use my board as an example, can do things in terms of policy-building to send a signal to their community, to their teachers and leaders that this is important to us. That we value diversity in a way that will make a critical difference in terms of the makeup of our educational system

And so they can develop policy that says we will diversify our staff because that’s important to us. Because our students represent a diverse group of young people.

We will make sure that we purchase resources so that again students of all cultures are reflected within the curriculum. We will recruit in ways that, again, send a message to the community and to the people who work here that we are very serious about diversifying our staff. One of the strategies that we use here is to just approach the many diverse teachers that we have and say, ‘Do you have any friends who are highly qualified like you that you think would interested in coming to a place where we highly value diversity to work with our children?’ So that’s one of the strategies that we use.

How can state leaders address this issue?

I think we should stop talking about it. We should stop talking about it in a way that the conversation starts and then stops at, ‘This is an issue.’ We should be doing something about it. And I believe that’s what the New York State Council of School Superintendents will do. And I believe it’s an opportunity for the State Education Department to partner with NYSCOSS — and New York State School Boards Association — to partner at the state level to say ‘Here’s what the research says about minority leadership in schools and here’s how we will all work together to make a difference so that all students in the state of New York can have access to the highest quality educators that have a shared experience with them over time all for the purpose of ensuring that students can achieve their potential’.

Opportunities to grow

Jaime Alicea

Superintendent, Syracuse City School District

“Our students need to see our teachers and administrators as role models so they can aspire to become the next generation of teachers and administrators in the district.”

Did you have any educators of color when you were in school?

I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I completed all my schooling in the public school system and was taught by a diverse teaching staff. I do remember vividly my third-grade teacher, Ms. Sanchez. She was my first teacher of color. Ms. Sanchez was a great teacher who had high expectations for all the students. She had great classroom management. We were not allowed to play around. We were required to demonstrate proper behavior in the classroom as well as in the cafeteria. The first time that I heard the word “university” was from Ms. Sanchez.

Describe your experience as an educator of color.

My experience as an educator of color has been mostly positive, especially during the time that I was teaching. I had the opportunity to work mostly with a great teaching and support staff that was very supportive. Maybe because I began as young man, teaching kindergarten, in a building that was 95 percent female, including the school administration. Most of the staff embraced me and supported me, especially during my first year. There were other staff members who did not show any interest because I was working in a bilingual program and they did not believe in bilingual education.

As a teacher I tried to be like Ms. Sanchez, my third-grade teacher. I had high expectations for all my students, and after two years at the school, English-speaking parents began to request me as a teacher for their kids. I also remember Mr. Williams and Mr. Snead, the two teachers of color in the building. They also had high expectations for the students. The students knew that they could not play around in their classrooms. They were role models for me.

Do you feel that you have had the same opportunities as your colleagues?

I feel that I have had the same opportunities as my colleagues, but in some instances I have had to work harder to reach my goals. When I began to take courses toward my certification as a building administrator, I was told by one of the professors that I needed to get rid of my accent if I wanted to be a principal. Later on, when I was appointed administrator in the district, another colleague said that I got the job because the district needed a token. I had to demonstrate and prove that I had the same credentials and that I was super competent to perform the duties of an administrator. After I was able to prove that I was competent, that I knew about instruction, and that I was making a difference in the schools and the community, I was promoted to many different positions in the district, including my current position of Superintendent of Schools.

How does school culture impact experience?

School/district culture makes a significant impact on all educators, but especially on educators of color. When I began in the district, I immediately began to get closer to the other teachers that look like me. I began to spend time with the other Hispanic and Black educators in the building. I felt that they were more welcoming and that I had more in common with them. We began to support each other as a team. The school administration knew we had high expectations for all students and that we wanted all our students, but especially our students of color, to achieve at a higher level and see the potential that a great education was going to provide for them.

How can we address this issue?

We need to address this issue directly from the top. We need to provide support for all the educators, but especially for the educators of color, so we can retain them in the field of education. We must provide mentorship opportunities. We need to provide opportunities for them to grow as leaders in the district. We need great minority teachers but we also need great minority administrators. Our students need to see our teachers and administrators as role models so they can aspire to become the next generation of teachers and administrators in the district.

Changing the dynamic

Shaun Nelms

Superintendent, University of Rochester Educational Partnership at East

“If there are young teachers sitting in classrooms who want to become an administrator, and they never interact with someone of color, and they never see the promotion opportunities of people of color, then at some point they start to question if thats the space that they should be, a place where they are welcome to be in.

Did you have any educators of color when you were in school?

I was fortunate enough to attend neighborhood schools in Buffalo, NY, and one of my first administrators was Dr. Dixon, who was an African American male, who was actually the first person of color that I can remember who actually had earned his doctorate. And so I think early on I knew that receiving your doctorate was attainable, and when I completed that task I literally remember thinking about Dr. Dixon and his influence on making me think about getting a doctorate.

Describe your experience as an educator of color.

There are times where you feel that you are on an island. And that’s more so from a cultural island, meaning experiences and jokes and some kind of cultural context and norms and background knowledge. But I think sometimes it’s my own insecurity around certain things and other times it’s exactly what it is. There’s just not a sense of community in those spaces. And so you find yourself — especially in settings where there aren’t strong systems — looking for a social group. And when there are no obvious social groups, you often feel alone and isolated. In school systems where they have a strong structure and they’re focused on certain goals then — regardless of who you are — you coalesce around those activities, and so you become better friends and you get to know people better. But in systems that are broken or in systems where there is not an overt attempt to build culture, it can be a very lonely place when you’re one of the only ones.

Have you had the same opportunities as your colleagues?

I would say that in our community, I see that access is not always available to people of color. By that I mean to be a superintendent, or be a well-balanced superintendent, you should have experiences in finance, experience in curriculum and instruction, as well as experiences in human resources. What I typically see in suburban/urban schools is that African Americans, particularly African American males, are typically positioned in human resources positions where there’s more social interaction and it’s more of a people person business. But the two most important positions I believe, that being in curriculum and instruction to drive the academic program as well as finance you don’t see very many people of color at all. I always found that to be a bit peculiar that the positions that are the most rigorous and demanding and that require the deepest level of understanding, you don’t see people of color being trained in those positions. And it’s something that has to be addressed.

How does school culture impact experience?

I think that school culture has a huge impact for all educators, but particularly for those people of color. It’s pretty clear when you’re in the minority group when a culture is not diverse or welcoming or accessible. You feel it in the most obscure things like not having Black history month or not celebrating women’s history month. You see it sometimes in facility programs. So if I’m an individual who is transgender or I identify differently and there’s a new building construction, but they don’t have gender neutral bathrooms, it’s a clear sign that that level of diversity is not accepted, understood or cherished.

And then there are overt things as well that you see when your expertise around cultural inclusivity is not called upon by those in power. So there are definitely ways to mitigate that. I have seen thriving schools that are predominantly white that have truly embraced the ideals of their community. And they intentionally go out and move beyond just the diversity training event and truly create inclusive environments for their students and for their staff and for themselves.

I think that people of color definitely add positive value to schools. But I think establishing diversity of thought in the short term for all employees in all school systems is needed, but with an end goal that they will also look to diversify the workforce as well to just add another element to those school systems. But it’s clear when school systems have that as a key component of their school mission and vision. And it’s also clear when it’s just an event that typically is in response to something that happened — a complaint or a letter to the board.

How can education leaders address this issue?

I think that there are some beginning efforts right now in New York State. There is a diversity task force being put together not just for the promotion, but the development of people of color in education. There are a ton of people right now in the pipeline if given the right opportunity and the right exposure and the right mentoring could be dynamic administrators throughout New York State. But if you’re in a community or an environment where your qualities are not nurtured and then advanced, then you get stuck. And I’ve seen many people just get stuck and not see those opportunities as possible.

Again, I go back to Dr. Dixon. As a young child I met this guy who had his doctorate. And it gave me at least a notion that I too could be that. Well if there are young teachers sitting in classrooms who want to become an administrator, and they never interact with someone of color, and they never see the promotion opportunities of people of color, then at some point they start to question if that’s the space that they should be, a place that they are welcome to be in. And so we have to change the dynamic. We have to continue to do things like this to show how an inclusive environment not only supports the people of color, but it also makes all of us a little bit more knowledgeable and understanding about inclusivity and diversity and creates an environment where we all become champions of diversity.

Staying focused

Edwin M. Quezada

Superintendent, Yonkers Public Schools

“We need to look at the system as a whole. Not only the people who are in administrative positions, but the people who are making the decisions.”

Did you have any educators of color when you were in school?

There were a number of individuals who supported my growth. I remember that one of my principals was an African American male. My counselor was a Black woman. She was phenomenal. Her understanding of the challenges that a young man of color – who was also an immigrant – experience when he comes to America to try to get an education was significant. She was my most influential individual in terms of helping me realize the importance of getting an education in this country.

Describe your experience as an educator of color.

I started as a paraprofessional in New York City. It was great. I was able to go back to the high school that I graduated from. But then becoming a teacher in the same high school was not as positive as I thought it should be. I was fairly young. I remember being thrown out of the elevator many times by teachers who thought I was a student. I had a degree in accounting and there were so many times when I said ‘Why don’t I just go back to accounting and become an accountant rather than stay in education?’

My experience as a paraprofessional was very positive, which made me want to be a teacher. But then my first couple of years as a teacher were painful, to say the least. In a very large comprehensive high school there were only a few of us (teachers of color). Certainly, it was not as pleasant of an experience as it should have been.

Do you feel that you have had the same opportunities as your colleagues?

As someone who has studied issues of diversity extensively, you will hear me say many times ‘there is nothing better than to be a White 42-year-old in America.’

I think my experience has been different in some ways. I have connected with phenomenal individuals. Many of them have been White and have mentored me throughout my career and firmly believed that I had a lot to offer. And I kept myself clean, for lack of a better term, which has allowed me to advance.

In addition to all of the mentors that I’ve had, what has helped me tremendously is that my focus has always been on improving the life experiences of the students we work with and their families. I believe firmly that if your focus is on what matters most in education, which I believe is improving the lives of the young people we interact with, it can be a positive experience.

However, I must tell you, my positive experience has not been the same as many of my colleagues (of color).

How does school culture impact experience?

I think that leaders need to work really hard to embrace the idea that we have a lot to offer. If we have a serious conversation about supporting the needs of young people, then everyone will see the talents, the benefits, and what is possible. That is even more important when the majority of the young people we serve are young people of color. We need to take care of all of our children.

The professional growth and the opportunities for leadership positions for those of us of color will become even more available when the conversations are about changing the life experiences of the children we are supposed to serve. It’s not easy for us to crack the ceiling. It’s not easy at all. Especially in a world where the majority of superintendents around me are not only all White individuals, but White male individuals.

We need to look at the system as a whole. Not only the people who are in administrative positions, but the people who are making the decisions. Ultimately, power will stay with individuals who currently have it unless we begin to think differently about this issue of equity and access.

How can we address this issue?

The conversation about race and the conversation about equity need to be alive in school systems. It’s not something we can run away from. We read a book this summer, all of the administrators, by Christopher Emdin titled For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood… and the Rest of Y’all Too. In speaking to some individuals, they would see the title and have an immediate reaction to the title of the book without making an effort to look at the content of the book. Without realizing how positive this book can be in an urban community if some of the recommendations are applied and utilized, and seeing how effective it could be supporting the entire student population.

We have to be real about accepting the conversation. All this surface conversation needs to stop.
The other thing that I will say is we need to have champions of this work. Real champions of this work. There are a lot of people who want to put their face out there and say I am a champion of equity. There has to be a follow up question. What did you do today? What did you do yesterday? I call them the fake champions of equity. Our children need more than fake champions of equity

There are also systemic issues. If we are going to speak about race and we are going to speak about equity than we need to develop a system that recognizes it and is going to address it. We as leaders – individuals like me – we have to create the conditions for others to see that it is possible. If you don’t model what you preach out there then you become a member of the fake champions of equity. We the people of color who have arrived, for lack of a better term, we have to leave the house better than we found it.