Portland Public Schools has doubled the number of educators of color employed in the district over the past five years, but the superintendent says much more work is needed to have the district’s workforce better mirror student demographics.

“We’ve made tremendous strides,” Superintendent Xavier Botana told school board members last week, “but we have also learned a great deal along the way about the areas where we have tremendous room for growth.”

While approximately 48% of Portland students identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or multiple races, only 11% of staff members identify the same way.

Increasing the diversity of staff, which has been one of Botana’s top goals since he became superintendent in July 2016, comes with a number of challenges for the district. The latest initiative calls for adding close to half a million dollars in expenses to the upcoming school budget during a time when the pandemic’s economic impact is still playing out. And, to ensure the plan’s success, the district must get “skeptical” staff members of color to buy into it and find ways to keep them in the district.

As part of the latest diversification work, Botana recommends spending $47,000 for additional recruitment and promotional materials; $7,000 to participate in Educators Rising; $147,000 to fund a career pathways program to help existing staff of color become administrators and ed techs become teachers; $108,800 to hire a new staff member to help with that leadership development; $158,000 to better compensate the ed techs and the language learning staff; and $6,000 in additional stipends for staff working on diversity programming.

A $10,000 grant from UNUM will cover some of this, but the vast majority of those costs are unfunded as of now and could be included in investments in the 2021-2022 school year budget. The Foundation for Portland Public Schools has, however, submitted a grant to pay for the staff position.

Many of the recommendations stem from a Educators of Color study the district conducted with Bowdoin College last year. The findings of that report are  expected to be released soon.

Research shows there “are cognitive, social and emotional benefits for all students who interact with classmates and educators of different backgrounds, cultures and orientations,” said Barbara Stoddard, director of the district’s human resources department.

Emily Cheung, a junior at Deering High School, said she is glad the district is making diversifying staff a priority.

“I think this is very important work,” Cheung said. “Being in Portland Public Schools since kindergarten, I’ve never been taught by a teacher of color before. I am happy to see more work is being done.”

Stoddard said the work is not just about attracting new educators of color to the district, but also retaining the those already working in the district.

“If we are focusing our efforts finding diverse staff only to bring them into an environment where they do not stay with us, our intended pipeline is leaky at best,” she said.

Alberto Morales, an English teacher at Casco Bay High School and a member of the Educators of Color research team, said the report found a “deep level of skepticism” among educators of color that steps the district take to diversify its workforce will actually help.

“We’ve experienced many waves of discussions, initiative and efforts that haven’t been sustained and actions that contradict the efforts that have taken place,” Morales said.

School board member Yusuf Yusuf said he was concerned about the level of skepticism.

“If the educators are feeling that way, it is hard for them to help students,” he said.

Morales hopes the report will help those concerns and experiences “be heard, recognized and validated.”  He also said he hopes it will help white colleagues better empathize and provide “clear and actionable avenues for change at every level of the district.”

Julia Hazel, a fourth grade teacher at Rowe Elementary School, who also helped with the report,  said the data “provides a really critical lens on where, as an organization, we can go.”

“It is really just about deepening and continuing the direction Portland Schools have been going in,” she said.

The career pathways program, Stoddard said, would include professional development, course reimbursement and mentoring. It would be open to all staff but mirror the demographics of the district. The Educators Rising program, piloted this spring at Deering High School, is targeted at inspiring young people to pursue the teaching profession. Students would be paired with Portland Public School staff and be able to earn college credit.

“Our proposed investment may seen like non-essentials, the reality is if we want different results than we’ve had in the past, we need to take a different approach,” Stoddard said.

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