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Activists push district to hire more teachers of color

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The New York State Department of Education released English and math test scores for grades 3-8 last week, and once again the Rochester school district's scores were the lowest among the state's Big Five urban districts. Although Rochester students showed a slight improvement over last year's scores, only about 7 percent met proficiency standards in English and math.

Even more alarming: in some schools, hardly any students in some grades made the top, "excelling" rating.

State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said during a telephone conference call with media that overall, the state is improving. But, she added, test scores in Rochester remain "a significant concern."

A group of local education and anti-racism activists, however, had a stronger response. In a press event last week, members of three organizations – Take it Down, Faith Community Alliance, and the Movement for Anti-racist Ministry and Action – gave a sharp assessment of the school board and Superintendent Barbara Deane-Williams.

And Minister Clifford Florence, Sr., an associate minister with the Central Church of Christ, drew a straight line between the district's largely white, female teaching force and the low test scores of the district's mostly minority students.

Some research indicates that black teachers are less likely to suspend students of color than white teachers are and are more likely to have high expectations of them.

The district has made little progress at hiring and retaining teachers of color, Florence said. "We're protecting incompetence," he said.

The activists said they had been told that the superintendent is "aggressively pursuing a racial justice agenda," but they questioned that.

"We want to help her successfully take on this immense challenge through broad-based community experience, expertise, insight, and collaboration," Florence said.

Long-time anti-racism and education activist Howard Eagle also challenged the district's hiring procedures, calling them "deeply flawed."

And in fact district officials haven't made much progress at hiring more teachers of color. The issue, which has been discussed for years, surfaced again during the August 24 school board meeting.

Only 25 percent of the district's teachers are people of color, district personnel chief Harry Kennedy told board members at the meeting. That's an increase of 5 percent from a year ago, he said, but it's still a small percentage in a district where only around 10 percent of students are white.

Kennedy broke the non-white staff numbers down this way: 423, or 13.1 percent of the teachers, are black; 203, or 6.3 percent, are Latino, 43, or 1.3, are Asian; eight, or .25 percent, are Native American; and two, or .1 percent, are Native Hawaiian. (Nearly 4 percent of teachers don't specify their race, Kennedy said.)

In an effort to improve those numbers, the district has completely revised its recruitment and hiring practices for teachers, Kennedy said. Recruitment started in February this year, about six months earlier than it has in past years. District officials also visited four historically black colleges in their search for teachers of color, as well as Puerto Rico.

Hiring is still underway to fill 110 vacancies, Kennedy said, particularly in hard-to-fill areas like special education.

School board Vice President Cynthia Elliott said the vacancies present an opportunity to fill more of those positions with teachers of color. But the district also has a problem with attrition and retaining teachers, which has complicated the hiring process, Kennedy said.

Elliott did praise the efforts of Deane-Williams, who has been on the job for only a year. Many of Deane-Williams' senior administrators are people of color, Elliott said.

"I commend the superintendent for her passion about racial equity," Elliott said. "I don't remember any other superintendent doing this kind of work to this extent."

But board President Van White, who participated in the meeting via Skype, was far less celebratory.

"Her cabinet is extremely diverse in central office," White said, "but we need to ensure the same level of diversity exists at the building level." The school board, which vote on teacher hires, should be told why teachers of color who have applied for jobs haven't been hired, he said.

And White went a step further, calling for the board to meet in executive session to review the pool of candidates before voting on the superintendent's hiring recommendations, both that night and in the future. Recommendations about candidates come to the superintendent from administrators and school-based planning teams, most of whose members are usually white.

During a phone interview after the board meeting, White defended his request. In the past, he said, the board has approved 99.9 percent of the candidates that superintendents have presented, with few questions. The board has a responsibility to do more than that, he said.

"Our children won't see that diversity if we don't do something differently," White said.

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