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The Diversity Test 

When it comes to hiring teachers of color, most Vermont schools get an F

click to enlarge f-blackteachers.jpg

It’s back-to-school season. But before the 2010-11 school year formally begins, here’s a pop quiz:

Which of the following questions are unanswerable?

a. How many people of color interviewed for Vermont teaching jobs last year?

b. How much money did Vermont schools spend last year recruiting minorities?

c. How many African American, Asian and Latino teachers are currently employed in Vermont?

d. To what extent are Vermont students being shortchanged for lack of exposure to teachers from diverse backgrounds?

The correct answer is “all of the above.” In the age of No Child Left Behind — which forces school districts into gathering, compiling and reporting statistics full time — it’s remarkable that Vermont knows so little about its educator workforce.

For example, the Vermont Department of Education knows exactly how the reading skills of this year’s third graders compare to last year’s. It calculates how seventh graders from rural districts perform in social studies compared to their urban counterparts, and how the math skills of nonnative English learners measure up to those of native speakers.

Similarly, school districts routinely track their own stats, from the attendance record of students in the free and reduced price lunch program, to how much money they’re spending on books, travel and heating fuel.

Yet we can’t answer the most basic questions about Vermont schools: Who are our teachers and where do they come from? Why can’t we? Because no one has ever been assigned that “homework problem.” In many parts of the state, it’s not even in the lesson plan.

But, for the first time in Vermont’s history, someone has finally done the math: H.W. “Bud” Meyers, director of the University of Vermont’s James M. Jeffords Center. Meyers, who served as Vermont’s deputy commissioner of education from 2000 to 2004, just completed a two-year survey of the racial, cultural and ethnic diversity of Vermont’s public school teachers.

The results won’t be made public until all the organizations and agencies involved have had a chance to vet them. However, Seven Days has learned that the findings are controversial, if unsurprising, and confirm what many parents and community leaders have suspected for years — namely, that Vermont’s teacher workforce is almost entirely white and not representative of the state’s increasingly diverse student population.

“It appears that, whether you go by the national census figures or you go from the responses we got from our superintendents’ offices, there is a very low incidence of the employment of teachers with diverse cultural backgrounds in this state,” Meyers says. “It’s very, very low, less than 1 percent.”

According to Meyers, many districts had never compiled such data before and had to hunt for it. Several ignored the survey entirely, though Meyers won’t say which ones.

Why didn’t some superintendents participate? Meyers won’t offer a theory, though it may be because they didn’t like some of the questions — or their own answers.

Specifically, all districts and supervisory unions were asked: Do you have a written policy for recruiting diverse candidates? What strategies do you use for recruiting diverse candidates, and how much money is spent recruiting them? Do you document the number of diverse candidates in your applicant pool? What are the barriers to hiring and retaining teachers and administrators from diverse cultural backgrounds?

Meyers won’t summarize how those questions were answered, though he makes it clear that many school districts are doing little or nothing to address Vermont’s rapidly changing student demographics.

In the last decade, Vermont’s overall student enrollment steadily declined, according to the DOE — from 110,000 students in 2000 to about 97,000 today. Yet, Vermont’s census data suggest that number would be even lower were it not for the influx of students of color. Between 2000 and 2009, nearly three-quarters of Vermont’s population growth was attributable to racial and ethnic minorities.

Today, Vermont students who describe themselves as black, Latino, Asian or Pacific Islander, Native American, multiracial or “other” comprise more than 6 percent of public school enrollment. Meanwhile, a phone survey conducted two years ago by the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity found that of 8890 licensed educators surveyed, fewer than 40 — that’s 0.4 percent — were teachers of color.

In Burlington, the state’s most culturally diverse district, the numbers of students and teachers of color are much higher. At last count, says the district’s Diversity and Equity Office, there were 47 languages spoken by students from 27 foreign countries — 28 languages alone at Wheeler Elementary’s Integrated Arts Academy. In the last decade, the number of students for whom English is a second, or third, language jumped 90 percent.

In fiscal year 2009-2010, 55 of Burlington’s 982 teachers were Asian, black, Latino, multiracial or “other.” Though that’s less than 6 percent of the teaching staff, even the district’s harshest critics admit that when it comes to diversity, Burlington is well ahead of the rest of Vermont.

*****

Vermont’s Racial ’Rithmatic: Diversity By the Numbers

Percentage of Vermont’s population growth between 2000 and 2009 due to racial and/or ethnic minorities:73
Percentage of Vermont’s public school population who are students of color: 7
Estimated odds that any Vermont student will be in a class with a teacher of color: 1 in 50
Estimated odds that a Vermont student of color will be in a classroom with a teacher of color: 1 in 100
“Official” number of teachers of color in Vermont: unknown
“Official” amount of money Vermont public schools spend on recruiting and retaining teachers of color: unknown
Number of employees in the Vermont Department of Education who track racial/ethnic diversity of public school teachers: 0
Percentage of teachers of color statewide, according to a soon-to-be-released survey by the University of Vermont: less than 1 percent
Number of school districts in 2010 offered free attendance at a minority teacher recruitment fair in New York City last spring: 260
Number of districts that replied: 0
Number of foreign countries represented in the Burlington school district: 27
Number of languages spoken by students in the Burlington school district: 47
Number of languages spoken at the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler Elementary: 28
Percentage increase in English Language Learners (ELL) in Burlington schools in the last decade: 90
Percentage of Burlington students who identify as people of color and/or biracial: 25
Total number of teachers in Burlington school district: 390
Number of teachers of color hired in 2009 in Burlington: 2
Number of the teachers of color hired this spring: 6
Amount of scholarship money available since 2004 to pay for a three-credit teacher continuing-ed course on African American history: $10,000
Number of Vermont teachers who’ve taken the class since 2004: 1
First year Vermont colleges were required to mandate a course on diversity equity for all new schoolteachers: 2008
Number of new applications being accepted for the Vermont Teacher Diversity Scholarship Program, due to recent budget cuts: 0
Number of Vermont’s 260 school districts believed to have a written policy on hiring racially/ethnically diverse teachers: 1

SOURCES: Vermont Department of Education; U.S. Census; Burlington Schools Diversity and Equity Office; Diversity Now; Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity

See No Evil

Sherwood Smith is eager to see Meyers’ survey results; as a lecturer in UVM’s College of Education and Social Services, he appreciates the value of empirical data. But as an African-American man who’s lived in Vermont for 14 years and has a child in a Burlington school, he’s heard all the illogical reasons behind the numbers.

“‘Black people won’t move to Vermont because it’s too cold,’ is one,” he says. His reply: “You ever been to Minneapolis, Detroit or Chicago in the winter?”

Another common refrain, Smith says, is, “‘How many teachers of color do we need?’”

His answer: “Well, how many white teachers do we need? When we’re above 98 percent, does that seem like a reasonable percentage?”

The excuse Smith finds the most insulting is this one: “Well, I guess it’s OK to hire for diversity, as long as we maintain quality.”

“As if hiring people of color, LGBT folks, or people with disabilities is somehow going to subvert the process and lower the bar,” he says.

Smith doesn’t believe malicious intent or overt racism is keeping Vermont schools predominantly white. Rather, he suggests it’s “a road to hell paved with good intentions.

“I think there’s been a passive resistance to addressing race,” he adds. “For many people, it’s a contradiction, because if they admit it’s a problem, it flies in the face of the notion that Everything is OK, we’re all liberal, and we’re all good people.”

Jim Woodard has also heard all the excuses. Until June 30, when federal funding for his job ran out, he was the only person in Vermont charged with helping the state’s public schools recruit and hire more minorities.

In November 2008, Woodard came on as executive director and statewide diversity coordinator of the Vermont Teacher Diversity Scholarship Program. Founded in 2001, the nonprofit VTDSP helps college students from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds enter the teaching profession by paying off their student loans in exchange for a commitment to teach in Vermont schools for at least three years.

Since its inception, 38 people have been accepted into the scholarship program. Eight are still in college working toward their teaching degrees. Eleven are currently teaching in Vermont public schools while earning their loan forgiveness, and another six have their loans paid off and stayed in Vermont.

The latter group includes Johanna Snedeker, 37, a first-generation Filipina who teaches English-language learners at the St. Johnsbury School. Snedeker, who got her teaching degree at St. Michael’s College in 2008, says she probably wouldn’t have finished the program were it not for VTDSP.

“I think having diversity represented in the teachers is really, really important,” she says. “And not just any diversity, but visual diversity … you can look at me from far away and I stand out.”

Lan Nguyen is another VTDSP scholar. An Essex native, Nguyen is the daughter of a South Korean mother and Vietnamese father. She graduated from Johnson State College with a 4.0 grade-point average and received the Sara Taylor Memorial Award for Writing and Literature. During summers, Nguyen works as an Upward Bound English instructor helping first-generation college students of modest income prepare for college.

The rest of the year, Nguyen teaches English to ninth graders at Enosburg Falls High School, where she’s the only teacher of color. Typically, she’s the one who has to dispel the usual stereotypes about Asians — and not just for her students.

“For me, it’s a great opportunity to expose and teach young high school students and young adults about racial issues,” Nguyen writes in an email. “I always share with my students my own parents’ experiences, as well as mine, which emphasize why it’s essential to have an education, particularly higher education.”

But there are two major drawbacks to VTDSP: There’s no guarantee that scholars will have a teaching job when they graduate, and, since Woodard’s position disappeared, no new scholarship applications are being accepted.

Not that the program was wildly popular everywhere. For two years, Woodard tried to convince school administrators of the benefits of interviewing candidates such as Snedeker and Nguyen. Much of the time, he admits, he got nowhere. Often, he didn’t even get in the door.

“What I found out pretty quickly is, they’re just not thinking about diversity,” Woodard says. “It’s not on the radar of a lot of school districts, or, if it is, it’s thought of as this ‘cherry-on-top’ thing.”

Interestingly, he says, it wasn’t necessarily Vermont’s rural districts that were most resistant. In fact, many of those were eager to expand their pool of applicants.

But, Woodard notes, school districts aren’t required to consider diversity in their hiring. In Snedeker’s case, neither race nor ethnicity came up in the application and interview process.

Administrators in predominantly white districts may not see the value in recruiting minority teachers if they believe it only benefits their tiny population of minority students. But Woodard calls that “faulty logic.”

“Having a diverse educational workforce benefits all students,” he says. “If you’re a white student, whether you plan to stay in Vermont to work or you want to leave the state, if you don’t have any global or diversity perspective, you’re at a distinct disadvantage.”

But, Woodard says, even the best-intentioned administrators often complain that they can’t find minorities willing to apply. He suggests they’re not looking very hard.

“If you want a pool of applicants that’s diverse, I’ll bring you a diverse pool of applicants,” he insists. “Last year, I had over 100 people of color respond to a banner ad on schoolspring.com,” he says of the educator recruitment website. “What I don’t have is anywhere to plug them in.”

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Recognizing the Problem

In one respect, Vermont has never been better positioned to open a dialogue on racial inequity in the teaching profession. After all, the state’s highest-ranking educator — Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca — has spent more than 30 years as a minority educator in an overwhelmingly white state.

Vilaseca was born in Cuba and came to the United States in 1964 at age 8. His family was part of the first wave of Cuban immigrants fleeing Castro’s revolution. Vilaseca grew up in the “Miami of the North” — West New York, N.J. — then later got his teaching degree at UVM.

Vilaseca says the biggest obstacle to attracting minority teachers to Vermont is the localized nature of the hiring process itself, in which each district does things differently.

Case in point: For years, a group of Chittenden County educators attended the annual National Minority Careers in Education Job Fair in New York City. It’s an elaborate, expensive event where thousands of candidates of color vie for teaching jobs all over the country.

Vilaseca points out that Vermont representatives were always at a disadvantage because they were surrounded by recruiters from bigger states who had the authority to hire teachers on the spot. In contrast, the Vermonters could only invite candidates to come visit their communities, which often required multiple interviews. Rarely were candidates reimbursed for their travel expenses.

Woodard, who attended several of those fairs himself, calls them a complete waste of time and money.

“You’ve got [school districts] from Las Vegas and Los Angeles all around you handing out contracts and signing bonuses,” he says, “and we’re there handing out Lake Champlain Chocolates, saying, ‘C’mon up!”

“This is not going to be fixed by the state,” says Vilaseca. He notes the DOE cannot mandate how Vermont’s 260 districts go about their hiring — nor would he want to do so even if he had that authority. “Local districts have to make a conscious decision that ‘We value diversity, and if we’re going to recruit culturally diverse candidates, we’re going to make it as easy as possible for them to get interviews and get a job.’”

Recruitment and hiring are just the first two steps in diversifying Vermont schools. Retaining teachers of color is a key part of the equation, Vilaseca notes.

“Of all my friends who moved to Vermont over the years who were minority, either Latino or African American, I’m the only one who’s still here,” Vilaseca admits. “Part of it is employment. But it’s also a different culture, different climate, food, music. Those are all things that are not readily available for people from different cultures.”

Sometimes it’s as simple as providing new teachers with information on where they can attend a church, synagogue or mosque, where they can buy Islamic-certified Halal foods, and find culturally diverse music, restaurants, social events and hair salons.

Bonnie Johnson-Aten, the principal of Edmunds Middle School and an African American, says those little things make a big difference.

“When I first got here, I was going back to Boston every 12 weeks to get my hair done,” she says. “Nobody really wants to do that.”

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Seeing the Light

In recent years, the Burlington School District has faced considerable community pressure to change its recruiting and hiring practices in order to attract more teachers and administrators of color. Last year, the group Diversity Now successfully lobbied the administration and school board to adopt written policies and procedures that incorporate racial and ethnic diversity into the hiring process. It was the first district in Vermont to do so.

Although some critics complain those changes didn’t go far enough, the new policies are already bearing fruit. According to Superintendent Jeanne Collins, last year the district hired just two teachers of color. This year, six of the 30 new hires are racial or ethnic minorities.

Additionally, the school board set aside funds — $750 per candidate — to cover the travel expenses of minority candidates. Collins emphasizes that only qualified candidates were interviewed, and no one “lowered the bar” to attract people of color.

“One of the myths that build up around incorporating cultural competence into your hiring process is the belief that you’re going to hire someone just because they have a different skin color,” she says. “All other things being equal, including quality, you choose the person of color because he or she brings something extra to the classroom.”

Schools in South Burlington, Brattleboro, Rutland and Windsor have also taken an active interest in hiring more minorities, Woodard says. Windham County in particular views it as essential to the economic vitality of the entire region.

Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro, has been working on diversity issues in Vermont for more than a decade. He says that, in the last economic census, Windham County had the highest per capita percentage of minority-owned businesses of any county in the state.

Many Vermonters value diversity in theory, Reed notes, but they don’t necessarily recognize the link between diversity in the schools and their own economic survival.

“We’re not selling milk to the Boston Irish anymore. Were selling it to the Portuguese, the Congolese, the Pakistanis and Indians,” he says. “The market for Vermont products has changed, so we need a workforce … that is competent and adept at working with folks from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds.”

According to Reed, three Windham County districts have created “diversity equity working groups” — including teachers, parents, community members and business owners — who are evaluating school curricula and looking for innovative ways to increase the visibility of people from different cultures, disabilities and backgrounds.

For example, the Strategies to Thrive program brings students together with role models who are people of color or have disabilities to discuss career options. Reed says the program helps students deconstruct negative stereotypes so they can see that it’s possible for anyone to grow up to be, say, a legislator or a top executive at a Fortune 500 company.

Other problems can be tackled at the statewide level, Reed suggests. For example, in 2003 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a scathing report on harassment and bullying in Vermont public schools. The report found that 90 percent of schools were doing nothing to train teachers to recognize and address harassment, much of which was racially or ethnically motivated.

Reed’s group later discovered that only three of the state’s 14 teacher-preparation programs offered courses in inter-group relations, diversity and equity, and those classes weren’t mandatory. So, his organization pushed the state accreditation board for new standards for all of Vermont’s teaching degree programs. Those new standards will be fully implemented by 2012. The next step, Reed says, is to push for new relicensing standards for existing teachers so that they, too, can acquire those skills.

But Reed emphasizes that state mandates alone cannot fix the problem if school boards, administrators and parents don’t see the social and economic value of raising culturally literate students. “If we’re raising an entire workforce that’s Eurocentric in its outlook,” he says, “we might as well fold up shop.”

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A History of Colorblindness

The lack of color in Vermont’s teaching staff may be a pervasive problem, but it’s by no means a new one. For years the classroom color gap has been obvious to anyone who’s bothered to look.

From 1980 to 1995, Bob Walsh taught at South Burlington High School, whose athletic teams are called “The Rebels.” Though it’s doubtful many SBHS students associated their mascot with the antebellum South, Walsh still remembers when South Burlington school buses sported confederate flags and “Captain Rebel” ran onto the field at every football game to the tune of “Dixie.”

Some may wonder why Walsh, a white man who grew up in a lily-white community north of Boston, was bothered by such images. But Walsh, 77, is a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marines who did two tours of duty in Vietnam. During one, he was second in command of a battalion that was rocked by racial hostilities, including a “fragging” incident in which a latrine was booby-trapped with a live grenade, then blamed on several black soldiers.

Shortly after his arrival in Vermont, Walsh was asked to teach an elective on African American history.

“When the class fell to me,” he recalls, “I realized how dumb I was.”

Walsh immediately immersed himself in research. Later, he wrote two books on race: The Other America, which he coauthored with Leon Burrell, and Through White Eyes: Color and Racism in Vermont.

The idea for the second book, he says, was sparked by legislative hearings six years ago on racial harassment in public schools. Walsh, who served in the Vermont House from 1983 to 1989, was stunned that many lawmakers seemed skeptical of the horror stories they were hearing from minorities. So, he decided to document them.

“I figured, if they won’t listen to people of color, maybe they’d listen to an old white guy who was their contemporary, who’d had all the benefits of white privilege,” he says.

Walsh went on to set up a small nonprofit called the Vermont African American History Project. It offers to pay the tuition for any Vermont teachers who enroll in an online, three-credit course at Howard University that prepares educators to teach African American history.

To date, Walsh has raised $10,000 for those scholarships. How many Vermont teachers have signed up in six years? Just one.

“I think the biggest problem in Vermont [in recruiting teachers of color] isn’t ill will,” he says. “It’s denial that racism even exists.”


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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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