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Beaverton, Tigard-Tualatin schools look to local aspiring teachers for workforce that better reflects students

JONATHAN HOUSE - William Walker Elementary principal Melisaa Murray drops in on a class for the first day of school. School districts in Washington County say they utilize a number of programs to try to recruit and retain a more diverse teaching staff, in an effort to keep more students engaged.School districts across the Portland metro region are looking to improve student achievement — starting with teachers.

In the wake of state data that showed large achievement gaps between white students and those from historically marginalized communities, education leaders say it's hard to ignore the teacher demographics.

In the Beaverton and Tigard-Tualatin school districts, more than 85% of teachers are white. In some of the state's rural districts, that number is even higher.

That can be problematic when compared to student demographics, which are far more diverse. About 43% of TTSD's students and 47% of BSD's students are non-white, but only 1% of the district's teachers are African American, and even fewer are Native American or Pacific Islander. That means many students may go through school never seeing a teacher who looks like them.

The National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher labor union, points to research showing the benefit of diversity in school teaching staffs.

A 2017 study co-authored by Johns Hopkins University economist Nicholas Papageorge found that "having at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student's probability of dropping out of school by 29%."

Susan Rieke-Smith is superintendent of Tigard-Tualatin schools. She told The Times that despite her district's staffing, bringing in more teachers of color has long been a priority for the district.

Rieke-Smith"In Washington County, there have been very intentional efforts made," Rieke-Smith said of recruitment efforts and other initiatives. "The board last year approved the addition of an associate HR director for TTSD. ... The focus of her work is to recruit and retain and develop our capital to diversify our workforce."

The same efforts are underway in Beaverton.

"We need to more closely reflect our student demographics," said BSD's chief human resources officer, Sue Robertson. "It's been a focus statewide, for at least the past 15 years, maybe longer, but you have to get people into the pipeline. Oregon in general has struggled."

Districts are utilizing everything from direct recruiting to programs called Grow Your Own, which help promote classified staff and para-educators already working in schools to become teachers. The program has been touted as an equity-based initiative that can help ensure more teachers of color are working in schools.

Districts like Tigard-Tualatin are also taking the homegrown approach literally- by identifying students who indicate an interest in teaching, and helping them come back to their home districts to teach after college.

In the Tigard-Tualatin School District, seven students — either recent high school graduates or those who have gone through college — are going through the program, district administrators noted.

Recruiting efforts indicate steps in the right direction, but the solution may require a more ambitious fix.

For college students pursuing teaching degrees, there can be huge barriers to entry, said Melissa Potter, who works in the Beaverton School District's human resources office.

"One of the reasons our teaching staff looks like it does is because of the way the programs are designed," Potter said. "It's about $30,000 in masters tuition. You have to at some point take four to nine months of no employment. There are significant barriers. It tends to be early-20s white females who can live at home with their parents and earn their masters degrees."

Schools in Washington County say they're hopeful that with thoughtful recruiting, and the encouragement of more students to pursue teaching careers, future students will see better representation in the classrooms. The next challenge? Keeping them there.

"It's not just enough to recruit," Rieke-Smith said. "Because Oregon has a very painful history relative to our African American colleagues, as well as our other communities of color, we have a challenge to attract them to want to stay."

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