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Diversifying Lake Oswego School District's staff 'a matter of urgency'
Increasing equity, diversity and inclusion continues to be a primary focus as the Lake Oswego School District approaches a new school year.
The district's strategic plan makes it a top priority. It was the focus of a recent three-day School Board retreat. And it is the lens through which future policies and programs will be developed by a newly hired equity director and a 22-member Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee.
Among other things, the committee — which includes students, parents, teachers and community members — has been tasked with developing strategies for attracting and retaining employees of color, and officials point to several recent hires that have already increased diversity in the district's administrative offices, including David Salerno Owens, the director of equity and strategic initiatives; Christine Moses, the executive director of communications; and James Miller, the LOSD's director of computer network services.
But school officials and critics agree that the district still has a long way to go. The LOSD's teaching staff remains overwhelmingly white, they say, which means there are very few people of color who interact directly with students on a regular basis.
And statistics released earlier this year back up that claim.
According to a 2016-17 Report Card published by the Oregon Department of Education, the LOSD's teaching staff in kindergarten through third grade is 95 percent white. In grades four through eight, the staff is 93 percent white, and it's 92 percent white in grades nine through 12.
In contrast, the district's student population is only about 75 percent white, the Report Card shows. And that discrepancy is a problem, says Respond to Racism co-founder Willie Poinsette, who sits on the district's equity committee.
In fact, she calls it "a matter of urgency."
"For kids (of color) to know that there is someone who looks like them, who sounds like them, gives the student a place of feeling safe, of feeling not alone," says Poinsette, a retired Portland Public Schools administrator, who has seen the LOSD's lack of a diverse teaching staff impact her own family.
"My son graduated from LOHS in 2007, and he never had a person of color as a teacher or an administrator. And there's so many people going through the same experience even now," she says.
A lack of connection
In recent months, the LOSD has been rocked by a series of incidents at local schools — including racist graffiti scrawled on bathroom walls, an anti-Semitic photo posted to a cafeteria wall and a hateful Post-it note passed to an African American student. A more diverse teaching staff may not have prevented any of that from happening, officials insist, but it would certainly go a long way toward creating an improved atmosphere of tolerance and inclusion.
Poinsette says her son often felt misunderstood by teachers, for example, and had to speak or behave differently around them to be accepted.
"People of color have to operate in two worlds," she says. "They're looking for someone who understands them. There is joy in looking at someone who looks like you. Even at this age, I feel better when I see another person of color in the room. There's just a connection."
Massene Mboup, the executive director of the International Leadership Academy in Lake Oswego, has seen firsthand the benefits of having a diverse teaching staff. ILA, a French immersion school located inside Hope Community Church, serves about 80 students — and nearly half of its faculty are people of color, with teachers hailing from Rwanda, Senegal, Tunisia, France, Scotland and more.
"In critical race theory, it is known that when children experience diversity from their staff, it is very important," Mboup says. "Children of color that experience a teacher of color by third grade are 35 percent less likely to drop out of high school than a student who hasn't experienced that."
Mboup, who immigrated from Senegal and recently became a U.S. citizen, says having students see him, a black man, as the head of the school shows children of color that positions of power are attainable.
"They learn by what they are seeing, what they are hearing," he says. "It helps them see 'the other.' Otherness will be seen as a positive aspect of their life, and not something to be afraid of. It makes the students grow."
That's true for white students too, Poinsette says.
"Students need to know how to live and interact with other people in the world," she says. "They need to know about other cultures and learn how to appreciate other cultures and interact with them."
Phillis Chen, a recent Lake Oswego High graduate, says she wishes she had been taught by more people of color throughout her educational career.
"It's important to have teachers of color in Lake Oswego because children of color can have struggles with looking different from their peers," says Chen. "Seeing a teacher who may look more like them can offer a level of comfort in that experience. Teachers of color can be great educators and mentors, but in addition to that, there is a special level of cultural understanding that a student of color could only find with another person of color."
'A good start'
LOSD Superintendent Michael Musick agrees with all of that. He says the district intends to hire more diverse teachers in the future, but that school officials are also proud of the steps they have taken to hire people of color for administrative positions.
"Within our strategic plan, we have an action plan of aggressively and actively recruiting or supporting teachers and staff from diverse backgrounds and cultures," says Musick. "Heather (Beck) was very proud, and I am too, of the work that we did in our hiring of central office and upper support folks. That's a good start."
According to Musick, the next step is for the district to figure out strategies "to recruit and retain teachers of color, and make them feel safe and welcome in our schools."
One of the first steps, he says, is for individuals in the district, especially those involved in the hiring process, to identify their implicit biases. Learning how to recognize those biases was a key focus of the School Board's three-day retreat in July.
"Donna Atherton, the district's HR director, is going to be implementing a program that every person who participates in hiring practices will go through before they join the teams that recruit and interview candidates," says Musick. "It's an important first step that we haven't done before."
Musick says that changing the structure and training around recruitment will allow for people of different backgrounds to be brought into the district.
"We need diverse teachers, assistants, bus drivers, custodians, everybody. I really, truly want a diverse employment group in our district. I think everybody does," says Musick. "The question is, how do we get there?"
Salerno Owens says it will be a long road, but a necessary journey.
"We understand that we do need more diversity within our staff. Given the fact that Oregon itself is a pretty white state, I think that we have to be much more creative in how we can actually bring in teachers of color and administrators of color, and we are taking those steps," he says.
As a person of color, Salerno Owens says he understands the barriers that students of color face on a personal level.
"I understand the struggle. I have lived that struggle," he says. "I think it is important for us to bring in individuals that, as students are being taught in classes, as they walk through the halls of their schools, that they are able to look up to those individuals and see themselves in them."
Poinsette says she hopes to use her perspective and her position on the equity committee to help guide the district in a more diverse direction.
"They have to address (the lack of diversity) at the classroom level and above," she says. "They have a couple of people of color at the district level, but as far as the folks that are around curriculum and instruction, there needs to be more diversity."
Equity committee member Paul T. Miller says he also hopes to steer the district toward a more aggressive hiring policy.
"They need non-white teachers and other staff," Miller says. "The white kids are going to be the biggest beneficiaries. They need to have some regular and sustained interaction with non-white people. If their parents don't have any non-white friends, school is the best place for them to get that."
Miller, who holds a Ph.D in African American Studies and has taught classes on racism in America and African American history, says that consistently interacting with diverse people — and recognizing the racism inherent in every individual — is key to moving forward.
"You have to have consistent and sustained relationships with people unlike yourself to get it," he says. "You really have to listen and change. We're not even giving our students the chance."
He says that the very definition of racism may need to change before policies and practices follow suit.
"People's understanding of racism is of insults and bigotry," Miller says. "But white supremacy and racism are structural and implicit. And not hiring a person of color for as long as (the district) has is the definition of white supremacy."
Poinsette does acknowledge that the process of hiring and retaining teachers of color will require a lot of legwork.
"They have to illustrate that there are a few students of color here, so folks understand there is some diversity. Hopefully they try to reach out and get people of color to be a part of this recruiting team, to go out and look for teachers and present the information," she says. "It can be a fine city for people of color to live in. We have a good educational system, but it's lacking the diversity piece."
Another important step is to support teachers of color long after they are hired, Poinsette says, so that they feel comfortable and welcome in Lake Oswego.
"If you bring people of color into LO, there has to be support for the teachers," says Poinsette. "Cultural support, so they're not alone in the city. It's more than having someone just apply and go through the interview, and then they're all alone. They have to be supported."
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