Teachers across Maine are still predominantly white, even though the number of students from minority and immigrant backgrounds has increased in the last two decades.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 96.5% of students across the nation were white in 2000. In 2017, 89.3% were white and 3.6% were Black. Maine students are increasingly diverse as well, especially in Lewiston and Portland, thanks to the immigrant families who chose this state as their last stop.

Yet there has been little change in the racial makeup of the state’s teacher workforce. There is evidence that students from immigrant backgrounds, particularly those who moved to the state in recent years, are often lost in the translation between the culture of home and the culture of the school. The result: Minority students typically make fewer academic gains than their white cohorts.

Worse, many of these students – some of whom speak multiple languages and have other skills brought with them from their native countries – are often viewed as needing remediation and end up being placed in lower classes or special education courses.

Again, the best solution to these achievement gaps is diversifying Maine schools. In most cases, students of color in Maine don’t see their schools celebrate their heritage or their national holidays. They don’t see their majority white teachers understanding their culture. In most cases, it is the students learning more about the dominant culture and the dominant language.

The schools should encourage multiculturalism and not assimilation. There is a difference between the two, and most immigrant educators would know that. In assimilation, minorities are expected to abandon their cultural traditions and values, replacing them with that of the majority. Multiculturalism encourages people to understand and interact and depends not on the sameness but on the differences. Minority students can thrive in such a place. It also leads to improved academic performance and increased interest in attending a college.

Research shows students of color also do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they are taught by teachers of color, someone who looks like them and speaks their native language. Black, Native American, Asian and Hispanic teachers are advantaged in their ability to know and communicate in more than one culture and language. They can be the key to success in the classroom and can lower the number of dropouts. This is what shows promise in achieving success for our nation’s increasingly diverse student population.

Some states have taken a leading role in diversifying their teachers after increased diversity in the student population. Sadly, Maine is not on the list, which includes Arkansas, Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Oregon, New Jersey and Washington. Maine, this is the right time to take action. Our state must engage in legislative efforts, educators need to work on increasing the inclusion of teachers of color and Indigenous people in Maine. Today’s students of color are the assets of the state; we should invest in them to help grow the state. We should not watch them fail.

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