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Race and the Classroom

Escambia’s Minority Hiring Stalls as Students Swell
By Jeremy Morrison

It’s a problem. One among many for the country’s public school system. And like most of the problems with the current state of education in America, this one doesn’t appear to have any easy answers.

The nation’s schools are sorely lacking in the number of minority teachers in relation to the corresponding student populations. It’s a problem here. It’s a problem pretty much everywhere.

The problem was sure to come up in conversation this month at the Tampa, Fla. Grand Hyatt. Escambia County School District Superintendent Malcolm Thomas recently joined other education officials from across the state there for a joint meeting of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and Florida School Board Association.

Bill Slayton, chairman of the Escambia County School Board, also made the Tampa, Fla. conference. He reported that the problem was, indeed, on the collective brain.

“Everybody’s got the same problem,” Slayton said during the Tampa excursion. “In our case we’re looking for African-Americans, down here they’re looking for Hispanics.”

Back in Escambia County, Assistant Superintendent Norm Ross said the school district is continually trying to increase its minority staffing numbers.

“It’s something that we’re plugging at,” Ross said. “It’s not like we’re just sitting back on our thumbs.”

In Escambia County, the school district’s overall minority student population has jumped across the 50 percent mark. That’s according to a recent accountability report from the Florida Department of Education.

Minority is a catchall term encompassing everyone that is not ‘white.’ Males are also considered a minority in the education field.

African-Americans are, by far, Escambia’s largest minority group, comprising 35 percent of the student population. Hispanics make up just fewer than 5 percent, while the remaining percentage is lumped into a category listed as ‘other.’

While the minority student population has steadily increased, the amount of minority staff in Escambia has stagnated at just above 10 percent for the past decade. Each year in the accountability report, the district acknowledges the imbalance and notes that efforts are continually made to increase the number of minority employees filling teaching and administrative positions.

“As far as great number? No,” said Ross. “Numbers—they are what they are.”

WHAT’S THE MATTER AND WHY IT MATTERS

In January 2011, African-American filmmaker Spike Lee and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan teamed up for an appearance at Morehouse College in Atlanta. Lee is a graduate of the historically black school.

The Morehouse appearance was part of a national drive to encourage more minority participation in the education field. Duncan told the audience the nation’s minority students needed more teachers that looked like they did. The secretary ran down the nation’s dismal disparity stats.

“Something is wrong with that picture,” Duncan said of the numbers. “We’ve got to fix it. We’ve got to fix it together.”

Morehouse College—with a graduating class of nearly 500 in 2011—offers an education degree. The school has reported that only six graduates chose the degree last year.

“Everybody can’t be a business major,” Lee told the Morehouse audience. “We have to educate ourselves. We have to educate young black men.”

One reason the federal government began pushing for more minority teachers—primarily through its TEACH campaign—was to narrow the statistical gap occurring nationwide between student and staff populations. The push was also centered on the idea that minority teachers could better communicate with minority students, and also be role models for those students.

Byron Scott buys into that line of thought. The retired air traffic controller is a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, where he is now a coach and substitute teacher.

“It matters, very much so,” Scott said. “My most respected teachers in high school were black teachers and black coaches.”

Kicking back on the bleachers in a Pensacola gymnasium, the substitute teacher explained how some of his black students have issues in other teachers’ classrooms. He said the same students seemed to do better under his watch.

“They know that I demand discipline from them, I demand order from them—I want them to be better, I want them to do better,” Scott said, adding that he also felt he related to the students better and served as an example of something to strive for. “When you see somebody in front of you and they see what they can be, they can go further.”

A 2011 report from the Center for American Progress entitled Teacher Diversity Matters arrived at a similar conclusion. The think tank reports that within the next 10 to 12 years the nation’s public school system will have “no clear racial or ethic majority,” and its author, Ulrich Boser, concludes that the country’s education workforce should reflect that change.

“Students should see people like them in the classroom,” Boser said recently, elaborating on his findings. “There’s strong evidence that teachers of color are more effective teaching students of color.”

Stepping out of the choir loft at a local church, Dr. Sandra Winborne expressed the same. The former school counselor said she sees merit in the role-model concept.

“A student needs to see excellence or see performance or see some element of themselves in adulthood,” she said.

Slayton also said he felt the presence of minority teachers was important for such reasons.

“I think minority teachers are a great role model for all students, especially minority students,” the school board chairman said. “I think it’s important to have those role models.”

Ron Waters, a local black man with children in the Santa Rosa County school system, agreed. He also said he thought some students might take instruction better from someone they felt they could relate to.

“A child wants to see what they can potentially be,” Waters said. “If all I see is white authoritarian figures, it’s going to make me feel like ‘this is just something I’m being told to do.’ If I see people that look like me conveying that knowledge, I’ll feel like those people have embraced it and it’s something that I can embrace.”

Escambia County School Board member Jeff Bergosh disagrees. He calls the notion that minority teachers are better suited to educate minority students “nonsense” and “rubbish.”

“I find that offensive,” Bergosh said. “I’m not buying it.”

The school board member said he felt a well-qualified teacher could educate students regardless of either’s ethnicity.

“I’ve had Asian professors. Are you saying that I can’t relate to them because I’m not Asian,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re black, white, polka dot or Martian.”

Bergosh said that society has become too reliant on the education system to pick up the slack left by a lacking home life. He said both race-related issues and economic disadvantages are wrongly held up as reasons for students’ poor performance in school.

“Look, man, you just can’t do it—the nanny state is wrecking education in America—the parents have to step up,” Bergosh explained, urging more participation in the home. “Even if you’re dirt poor, there are families that are making it happen.”

With a daughter in the local system, Scott agrees with that notion. Although he views the minority staffing disparity as an issue that needs addressing, he doesn’t view it as an excuse.

“I’ve thought about this a lot—success is not a class issue, it’s an individual issue,” Scott said. “You can’t sit back and say, ‘oh somebody did this to me.’”

While also identifying family as the ultimate key, Waters said he does feel educators have some amount of responsibility to society. In some instances, the father said, schools may actually be called on to take on certain parental responsibilities for some students.

“A lot of the children in our schools, the only discipline—the only mother and father figure they have—is in the classroom,” Waters said.

THE BOTTOM LINE IN AN EMPTY POOL

The Escambia County School District is not alone in its failure to adequately increase minority staffing numbers. Across the state, and across the country it’s a problem. The situation is generally worse where minority populations are increasing at a quick pace.

“Florida is not doing well,” said Boser. “It’s not the bottom of the barrel, there are some states doing worse.”

Within the state of Florida, Escambia’s numbers hover somewhere in the middle of the field. There are districts doing worse, but there are others doing better.

Dade County, for example, has an over 90 percent minority student population. The South Florida district’s minority staffing numbers are about 73 percent.

In the Panhandle, Gadsden County is also succeeding in more closely matching the populations. The heavily black district has an overall minority student population of 96 percent, and a minority staffing rate of 78 percent.

“I don’t think it was too hard to do,” said Dr. Pink Hightower, head of Human Resources and Staff Development for the Gadsden district.

The HR official attributed the district’s success to being near Tallahassee, Fla. The proximity to the state capitol and multiple colleges has provided the district with a sizable candidate pool.

“There’s an abundance of teachers in the area,” he explained.

Hightower has also worked in Leon and Jackson counties. In his experience, minority teachers don’t tend to venture too far beyond Tallahassee into the Panhandle.

“Just a lot of people don’t go west as far as Florida is concerned,” he said. “Maybe it’s just their comfort zone, what they’re used to.”

Hightower suggested Escambia officials make some trips to job fairs and traditionally minority campuses to recruit candidates.

Escambia County School District Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Services Alan Scott said those efforts are being made. He recalled a recent trip to the University of West Florida to meet with graduating education majors.

“I don’t think there was a single male in there,” Scott said. “I don’t think there was a single black individual in there either.”

The HR official described a discouraging scene at a hiring fair the district sent representatives to. Escambia’s table was not the most popular among attendees.

“Our starting salaries are not great when compared to other school districts,” Alan said. “They ask one question: ‘What’s your starting salary?’ They just move on to the next table.”

But the area has other selling points. Plenty of positives to accentuate.

“We try to sell them on our weather, the beaches, the environment, but a lot of these individuals look at the bottom line,” Scott said. “We’re trying to convince young people, ‘Hey, come work for us, we’ll pay you $32,000-and-change.’ It’s a difficult sell.”

And then, of course, there’s the competition.

“There are some school districts in this country that pay unbelievably well,” Scott explained. “For a while, we were competing with Las Vegas. They would fly people out, put’em up in one of those fancy resorts, pay all their moving expenses.”

The Escambia official said he wished the district could afford to be more generous.

“It would be nice to have a budget to put’em out at the beach for a few days,” Scott said. “Give’em some tickets to a Blue Wahoos game or a movie.”

When the economy was better, the district held local hiring fairs where applicants could be offered jobs on the spot. The effort was somewhat successful in attracting minority candidates.

“That was when the economy was booming and there were a lot of jobs out there,” Scott said.

This year, approximately 275 new teachers will be hired in Escambia County. Scott expects between 1,500 and 2,000 applicants for those positions.

This past year, the district brought aboard 280 new hires. Fifty-four of those were minority, with 37 of them being African-American.

Chairman Slayton said he’s not sure what can be done to up that number.

“I don’t know what else to do, to be honest,” he said.

The chairman recalled that the district had once partnered with a bank in order to offer candidates low-interest loans to cover initial moving costs. He said the effort was “minorly” successful.

He also mentioned a teaching academy the district once ran. Participants in the program were encouraged to apply for jobs locally.

“Unfortunately,” Slayton said, “that academy has played itself out.”

Bergosh complained that there are not enough qualified minority applicants to create a large enough pool from which the district may draw. He said some applicants are woefully inadequate, and that quality was a higher priority than hitting better diversity numbers.

“There’s qualifications, we don’t just put anybody in the pool,” the school board member said, adding that he’d encountered applicants that “can’t even put a paragraph together—these are college graduates, these are people who have taught for five years.”

Dr. Winborne suggested that perhaps the district offer a higher salary to teachers willing to teach in poorer performing schools. She said this might help attract more highly qualified candidates, preferably minority candidates, where they are most needed.

Bergosh mentioned that concept as well.

“I’m sure there probably are things we could do—one of the things I’d say right off the bat, we could pay teachers to take on the tougher schools,” he said, adding that the teachers’ union wouldn’t allow for such. “In real life, if you want the best teachers you’ve got to pay them more.”

While a higher salary might help, more money won’t solve the problem entirely. The pool of minority educators is not as deep as it could be.

“They’re graduating from high school at lower rates, they’re graduating from college at lower rates,” explained Boser. “That gives you somewhat of a less robust pool to choose from.”

Slayton hit on the same point that Spike Lee had hammered back at Moorehouse College.

“I don’t know if we have as many going into education as we used to,” he said. “They’re in management and sales and they’re making very nice salaries.”

Boser maintained that closing the disparity gap was an attainable goal. He said the matter needed to be made an “explicit goal.”

“Saying, ‘this is something that is important to our county,’” he said. “The bottom line is that some school districts have not made this a priority.”

HUDDLE UP FOR THE ‘DAUNTING TASK’

The Escambia school district’s minority staffing issue came up recently during the school board’s May 11 workshop. Bergosh began the conversation as he thumbed through a copy of this year’s accountability report.

“Interesting,” Bergosh said. “Interesting report.”

The school board member had questions about minority recruiting efforts. The school district’s affirmative action director, Horace Jones, made his way to the lectern with a copy of the report to offer some answers.

In 1971, Jones was a 12th round NFL draft pick. The hometown boy spent the seventies playing for the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. Afterward, he headed back and started working in the school system. These days he heads up the Escambia school district’s minority recruitment efforts.

“I went to FAMU, in Tallahassee, here, last week,” Jones told school board members. “They had 30 graduates in their College of Education. We spoke to about 15. We gave them the instructions on how to do the online application and when I got back the next week and looked, no one had done it.”

Bergosh was specifically concerned with the lack of representation of Hispanics among district administration. He told Jones the district would not be able to improve its minority staffing numbers until there were more minority applicants to choose from.

“I think in order to get a higher percentage of minority employees we’ve got to get more applicants and, I don’t know, it sounds like it’s a daunting task,” Bergosh said.

Jones replied that one primary obstacle in attracting minority applicants has been the district’s pay range.

“That’s what they told us in Tallahassee,” he said.

“Well, we’re trying,” Bergosh said. “They don’t give us a lot of money these days.”

The school board member again told Jones that the pool of minority applicants needed to increase. Superintendent Thomas then jumped into the conversation.

“Here’s the problem there, Mr. Bergosh,” the superintendent said. “Even at FAMU, the number of students that will go into education compared to other fields has been declining. These students have other opportunities and they’re not choosing education.”

Despite districts like Gadsden County being able to attract a sufficient number of minority candidates with a starting salary of $31,000, Escambia officials are committed to this refrain: there are simply not enough qualified people in the pool willing to take what they’re being offered.

“You went to FAMU and what was the population that you had to pull from?” the superintendent asked Jones. “I think somebody was giving me a report on that.”

“There were 30,” the former defensive end repeated.

“Thirty students, and in the whole university, for the whole state to pick and choose from and that’s what we’re competing against,” Thomas said. “It’s a shrinking pool and there’s just not enough good, qualified candidates out there to throw in the pool to hire.”

School board member Linda Moultrie said she found the same problem to exist outside of education as well. She said many fields—specifically law enforcement—had disparity issues relating to the populations they serve.

“What do you do?” she asked.

“Well, you got to keep trying, I guess—right?” Bergosh said.

HIDE OR SEEK

Back in Byron Scott’s high school days at Booker T., Jones was larger than life. The former NFL player made a big impression on the student.

“He was one of my coaches,” Scott remembered. “He was one of my mentors.”

When discussing the school district’s staffing disparities, he said the lack of minority teachers shouldn’t be laid at Jones’ feet. The affirmative action director does not work alone.

“He can only offer so much,” Scott said. “It has to be a top down process.”

Higher-ups at the Escambia school district seem to have thrown their hands up in frustration. They point to mildly successful recruitment efforts and paint portraits of brick walls that block any real progress.

“That’s all you can do, man,” concluded Assistant Superintendent Ross. “There’s no magic pills out there.”

Over in the HR department, Alan Scott is slightly more optimistic. He points out slim victories, like the fact the district has increased its number of black administrators by 50 percent—the district now boasts a total of nine black administrators.

“We’re not where we need to be,” the district official conceded. “So, we continue to develop strategies. We continue to recruit.”

African-American students in Escambia County graduate at a rate barely over 60 percent. For their sake, the local black community is hoping the school district becomes more successful in its efforts to bring minority teachers to the area.

“We have to go out and seek,” said Byron Scott. “You’ll find the answer if you go out and seek.”

——————————–

Each year, the Escambia County School District completes the Annual Equity Update. Within the Update, the state inquires about what measures are being pursued to bridge the disparity gap between minority representation in the student body and staff populations. The following are excerpts from the school district’s responses.

2007-2008: Ensuring greater diversity among all school-based positions will increase the number of underrepresented groups district-wide. With encouragement from site based administrators, underrepresented groups of individuals are encouraged to pursue additional credentials, placed in various leadership roles at schools, and encouraged to apply for administrative positions. These endeavors will increase our pool of qualified underrepresented groups as administrative positions become available. The District facilitated an eight percent raise during the 2007-2008 academic year, moving our salaries near the state average for teachers. This will allow us to better recruit underrepresented individuals into the teaching profession as we become more competitive with our salaries.

2008-2009: The District will implement a new procedure for the 2009-2010 academic year concerning annual contract non-renewal of un-represented classifications (minority) of instructional personnel. Principals will contact the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resource Services and the EEOC Coordinator to review all request when minority instructional personnel are recommended for non-renewal. The review process is an effort to continue the District’s initiative to recruit and retain certified/highly qualified minority instructors. The District is also under new leadership with the election of Superintendent Malcolm Thomas. Mr. Thomas will consider the District’s diversity plan objectives when reviewing selections for administrative and professional appointments.
During the 2009-2010 academic year we will utilize stimulus dollars allocated to Title 1 to secure the services of a diversity trainer(s) to facilitate workshops on an as needed basis to ensure the diversity goals of the District are clearly communicated and understood.

2009-2010: Despite the difficult economic situation in the State of Florida, the District gave a three percent pay raise during the 2009-2010 academic year which assisted in boosting our starting teacher salaries closer to the state average allowing the District to become more competitive in our effort to recruit minority instructors into the District. The data reflected a one percent decrease in black instructional hires from the 2008-09 year to the 2009-10 year and a one percent increase in Hispanic hires during the same time frame. In administrative appointments for the 2009-10 year the District decreased by one percent in black appointments to principal, increased by five percent in black appointments to assistant principal, and increased by 10 percent in black appointments to dean/behavioral specialist. During the 2009-2010 academic year, the District developed a diversity staff development component that will be used on an as needed basis to ensure the diversity goals of the District are clearly communicated and understood.

2010-2011: Despite the difficult economic situation in the State of Florida, the District gave instructional personnel a one percent pay raise during the 2010-2011 academic year and bargained an additional two percent increase effective July 1, 2011, for a three percent total increase. This increase assisted in boosting our starting teacher salaries closer to the state average, allowing the District to become more competitive in our efforts to recruit minority instructors. The data reflects a one percent decrease in black instructional hires from the 2009-2010 year to the 2010-2011 year and a one percent increase in Hispanic instructional during the same periods. The data further reflects an increase of seven percent in Black guidance counselor hires, a 10 percent increase in Black dean and behavioral specialist hires, and a two percent increase in Black assistant principals hires. For the 2011-2012 academic year, the District budgeted funds (despite hard economic conditions) to again send a recruiting team to minority institutions in the spring term, to recruit minority graduates into our teaching positions. This team will provide teaching contracts to the new graduates and place them into teaching positions within the District.

2011-2012:  … the District refined and further developed a diversity staff development component which be used at District wide trainings and on an as needed basis to ensure the diversity goals of the District wide trainings and on an as needed basis to ensure the diversity goals of the District are clearly communicated and understood. To further build on this initiative we are bringing in Dr. Monica Hayes for a two-day diversity workshop May 21 and 22, 2012 to be attended by the District leadership and representative from all workgroups in the District. This group will replicate this training for District wide implementation through staff development. In the spring of 2012, we are sending (despite hard economic conditions) a recruiting team to a minority institution to recruit minority graduates into our teaching positions. The team will provide teaching contracts to the new graduates and place them into teaching positions within the District.