PORTLAND — More than 93 percent of all Portland Public Schools staff identify as white, compared to 43 percent of students who identify as people of color, which is why the School Department is on a mission to diversify its labor force.

Starting this summer the schools and the University of Southern Maine are partnering to offer a new, four-week program for people with diverse backgrounds interested in entering the teaching profession.

“Is it our belief, based on the research, that having a more diverse teaching staff, who better reflects the diversity of our student body, will be beneficial to our students,” Superintendent Xavier Botana said.

“This strategy to diversify our team is not just about increasing the percent of our staff who identify as people of color,” he added. “We are also building out a district-wide effort to train all adults to be culturally responsive, which includes training on implicit bias.”

“In general, our aim is to diversify our staff, with a particular focus on teachers, so that our people better reflect the diversity of our student body,” Botana said. “We recognize that in order to accomplish this, we need a strategy that helps build the local pipeline of teachers that we can recruit and hire from.”

The program being designed with USM, he said, would target high school and college students, along with adults, including a focus on new Mainers.

Under the initiative, participants would have a chance to explore the teaching profession through a college course and hands-on experience in the classroom, which would include some paid work as well as internships.

USM’s role is to offer a free, three-credit introductory education course.

In addition, the university is also helping in the creation of  “personalized pathways for program participants,” Botana said, which would be specifically tailored to each age group, as well as each individual.

“For example,” he said, “if there is a new Mainer who was an educator in another country, their pathway will be designed to fill any gaps in their training based on specific Maine requirements.

“On the other hand, if the participant is a current high school senior, they will be assigned an adviser at USM who will support that student in applying for admittance and getting financial support to attend USM and receive educator certification.”

While Botana hopes to begin applying the diversity approach to hiring for the fall, he does not expect participants in the new program to be ready to teach.

“We see this strategy as a part of our long-term approach,” he said.

Along with a more diverse workforce being better for students in Portland’s schools, Botana said, “there is (also) research that suggests that diverse teams are more effective than homogeneous teams.”

“Thus, we believe there are benefits that will be accrued to our current staff from working with colleagues from different backgrounds and experiences.”

To attract diverse candidates to open positions in the Portland schools, Botana said the district is “building a focused outreach campaign.”

When it comes to retention, he said, “we intend (on) using similar strategies that we use now, such as competitive salaries and benefits, a robust mentoring program and meaningful professional development.”

Botana added, “We intend to … ensure that our staff culture is inclusive and supportive of all people. This includes introducing optional affinity groups, (while) training all staff to be culturally responsive.”

Barbara Stoddard, the schools’ director of human resources, said the intent of the new diversity initiative “is to build a pipeline for future employment.”

“Students from USM are invited to participate in the program, along with college students from other colleges or universities, high school students, and adults,” Stoddard said. “Anyone who participates will have an equal opportunity to be considered for future employment” in the Portland schools.

Cathy Fallona, the director of educator preparation at USM, said the university is more than happy to partner with the Portland Public Schools to help diversify its staff.

“Hopefully, prospective teachers of color view this as an opportunity to become a member of one of the most important professions in our society,” she said. “As teachers, they can make a positive difference in people’s lives, and through their work, make our communities better.”

“Additionally,” Fallona said, “prospective teachers should know research finds that having a teacher who looks like or is from the same cultural background as you improves student achievement. To that end, it is incredibly important that a diversity of people enter teaching.”

She called the new initiative with the Portland Public Schools a work in progress, but agreed with Botana and Stoddard that, “This approach is incredibly important if we want to recruit and retain (diverse) teachers who will stay and teach here.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KirishCollins.

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