Maine Public Radio’s “Maine Calling” recently aired a segment titled “Why is Maine so white?” It offered several historical explanations for why, when you travel this state, you rarely see people of color. That pattern does not, hold, though, in the Portland Public Schools – except in the faculty room. While 40 percent of Portland students are of color, less than 5 percent of Portland teachers are. Why should we care? We just want good teachers and principals, no matter their race, right?

Not so, according to the Fierce Girls of Lyman Moore Middle School. This group of girls of color hosted district and community leaders in a forum this December in which they shared an urgent plea: Give us teachers of color. One after another, they explained what it would mean to see someone who looked like them in front of the classroom, who spoke their home language, and who understood their culture. Research bears that out, showing that students of color achieve more when they have at least one teacher of color.

At first blush, this seems like any easy problem to fix in Portland. We have no shortage of refugees and asylum-seekers who were trained professionals – even teachers – in other countries, and many are engaged now in low-paying unskilled labor. It looks like a quick fix of matching supply to demand, but many barriers stand in the way. Foreign certifications, course credits, and test scores, for example, rarely transfer, putting experienced and aspiring teachers from abroad at square one.

Consider Adna and Jean (pseudonyms). Adna was in her final semester of veterinary school in Somalia when civil war erupted and she fled to the United States. After years working as a custodian in Portland Public Schools, she was recruited to become an educational technician. Department of Education officials, though, were “unable to evaluate” the official ledger with handwritten course names and grades that she had kept safe all these years since fleeing Mogadishu. While she was able to take the position, she is unable to claim the pay rate assigned to her true level of education.

Jean fled Rwanda more recently under threats to his life. He had served as a high-level accountant and also as a teacher at an elite high school. While waiting for working papers here, he volunteered in Portland schools, living at the YMCA and Skyping with his wife and children late at night on a communal computer. When Jean was snapped up to teach French by a Portland school, it took nearly a year of working with the DOE before the district could pay him a full salary.

These stories demonstrate that granting the Fierce Girls’ wish will not be easy. There are some concrete steps, though, that we can take to connect underemployed Portlanders of color with teaching placements that will change kids’ lives for the better. Portland Public Schools has undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in hiring. It released a recruitment video targeting candidates of color and a diversity hiring toolkit to guide its administrators. It also launched Teach Portland, a grow-your-own program providing initial certification coursework and internships to immigrant students and adults interested in a career in teaching, and Education Academy, a free program to certify new Mainers for entry-level educational technician positions. At the state level, the Legislature and Department of Education could collaborate to create an alternate pathway for certification for multilingual new Mainers, just like other states have for areas of critical need such as science and math.

In Portland, we have a critical need to provide children with teachers who look, talk, and worship like them; who have shared life experiences. We also need employment for immigrants that harnesses their skills and grows our economy instead of weighing it down. If we can connect those dots, all Mainers will benefit. A rich, diverse community and economy will shift the question from “Why is Maine so white?” to “Why is Maine a role model for other states?”

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