Pandemic cuts the amount of information available in annual release of state statistics

PMG FILE PHOTO - A few country music songwriters visited Parklane Elementary School in the Centennial School District last year and music teacher Katherine Cooper had them work with her music students. Centennial has managed to increase the diversity of their teaching staff. Many students of color can go through their entire school careers and never have a teacher that looks like them, but not the music students from Parklane.

The Centennial and Gresham-Barlow school districts have been able to diversify their teaching staff, attracting more teachers of color to reflect the diversity in their student bodies, recently released statistics show.

At Centennial, 91% of the teachers were white in the 2018-19 school year, but it increased the diversity of the teaching staff so that in the 2019-20 school year, 88% of the teachers were white, according to statistics released Oct. 15 by the Oregon Department of Education.

Although Gresham-Barlow's year-to-year proportion was unchanged with 90% of their teachers white, the 12,000-student district started this year with 86% white teachers due to the diversity of new hires for the 2020-21 school year.

"Our student population is over 40% BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color), and the work we're doing to increase the diversity in our staffing will contribute to the district's goal of preparing culturally responsive graduates," said Katrise Perera, Gresham-Barlow superintendent.

Centennial's success is due to "a combination of factors," said James Owens, assistant superintendent and human resources director at Centennial School District.

Owens said Centennial has been talking about and working on increasing the diversity of the teaching staff for a long time.

"One-third of our administrators are people of color," Owens said, "that also creates a draw for (BIPOC) candidates. They know they will be supported."

He also said the diversity of the Centennial student body and the district's commitment to diversity is becoming known to newly minted teachers who now are more interested in talking with Centennial about jobs.

Districts across the country are working to increase the diversity of their teaching force to better reflect the diversity in their student body and families.

"Diversity in our instructional staff has the potential to expose students to various cultural and social groups, which allow them to become better community and global citizens as the world around them continues to diversify," Perera said via email.

Gresham-Barlow added 53 new teachers and four administrators for the 2020-21 school year. Of the 57 new hires, 35 were white and 22, or 39%, were identified as Black, Indigenous or people of color (BIPOC). Twelve of the 22 are Latinx, three Asian, one American Indian, two Black, three multiracial and one Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander.

"The district has openly marketed our recruiting and hiring processes with the development of a district hiring website and has been intentional in partnering with local colleges and universities in developing a 'grow your own' pathway with multiple entry points for para-professional staff in the district," Perera said.

Some school districts "grow their own" by working with students, parent volunteers and teaching assistants of color to help guide them through college and get teaching credentials in hopes they will come back and work for the district.

Reynolds School District stayed steady as 92% of teachers were white, compared to only 31% of the student body.

The statistics showed there was little change in the composition of the student bodies in the three big East County school districts, which are some of the most diverse in the state.

The school year took a big turn in March as districts closed school buildings and had to pivot to distance learning in the effort to tamp down COVID-19.

The state released its annual statistical profiles of school districts and schools Oct. 15, but the usual treasure trove of information was limited by the abrupt change to remote learning last year.

Normally the state provides important numbers for test scores, one measure of how students are doing in school. But kids did not take the standardized tests at the end of the 2019-20 school year, so that data was not available. Numbers on class size, attendance, ninth graders on track to graduate and other benchmarks also were missing.

The Oregon Department of Education said "Distance Learning for All was implemented statewide in April, but as a result, some of the data normally used for the profiles is not available."

You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.