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Saturday, June 13, 2009

Group seeks diversity among teachers

Jenn Strickler recalls the day when two of her children, both black and then around ages 5 and 7, had a conversation that convinced her change is needed in the Burlington public school system.

The younger child announced an ambition to be a teacher some day, which drew this response, Strickler says. “The 7-year-old said, ‘well black people can’t be teachers. You have to be white to be a teacher.”

Strickler was dismayed but not entirely surprised. In a district where 97 percent of the teachers are white and 94 percent of all employees are white, the child’s conclusion was not illogical. “That’s the message that he got by looking around and seeing the teachers in his life in Burlington,” said the University of Vermont associate professor of sociology and mother of six.

She’s among a group of parents and community members who are asking school district officials to hire more teachers and staff who are people of color. The group, which calls itself Parents for Diversity in Burlington Schools, wants 35 percent of all new hires to be non-white within two years.

This is needed to correct a racial imbalance, they say, in a district where minority student numbers are growing but faculty members are disproportionately white. Between two and three percent of the district’s 371 teachers are minorities, according to district calculations based on information reported by teachers. This includes four Asian teachers, three Hispanic teachers and two black teachers.

Among all approximately 888 district employees, the percentage of minorities increases to six percent and includes 17 blacks, eight Hispanics, 13 Asians, one American Indian and 12 people who self identified as “other” and may be mixed race individuals.

Vermont’s population is 96 percent white — but Burlington is significantly more diverse than the rest of the state and the public schools reflect that.

About 26 percent of Burlington’s approximately 3,600 students are minorities and about 12 percent receive English language learner services. Immigrant and refugee students from Somalia, Burundi, Bosnia, Russia, Nepal and Iraq are among the increasingly international student body.
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Parents such as Stephanie Seguino, whose son is African-American, believe it’s past time for the school district to recruit more teachers and administrators of color. It’s “huge burden” for students who don’t see themselves represented in the faculty or administration, she said. “They face many, many challenges and a good deal of subtle discrimination that many students as well as adults are not aware that they are perpetuating.”

Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Burlington schools, said the district wants to hire more people of color. Some progress was made this year, with the hiring of a black science teacher at Burlington High School, for example.
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The district has begun to institute “cultural bias” training for all people on interview teams and has set a goal of bringing more minority parents onto hiring committees. Parents sometimes participate in hiring committees for school principals but rarely are part of teacher hiring committees.

Collins did not have demographic data on new hires for next year and said the hiring process is not complete. The district recently hired three new elementary school principals set to start this summer. All are white. Data provided by the district from SchoolSpring.com, an employment service for educators, suggest few minorities applied. The Flynn principal job drew one confirmed black applicant and one Hispanic applicant, out of a total of 40 applicants. Not all applicants chose to disclose their race, however, so those numbers might not portray the full picture on minority candidates.

Collins said the district went beyond its usual hiring practices and reached out to traditionally black colleges, for example. But very, very, few minorities applied, she said.

Dan Balon, director of diversity and equity for Burlington schools, said he understands parents’ frustration. He said he is committed to increasing diversity in the faculty and staff. The district will provide an update to a school board subcommittee on the matter June 16, he said.
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“It’s very complex,” Balon said. “It’s not just our selection process, there are lots of issues related to climate for the city and the community.”

Henri Sparks, coordinator of student and family support services for the Burlington Schools, is among the district’s black employees and serves on the Parents for Diversity committee. He runs several programs, including the alternative day program at Burlington High School.

With many cultures, nations and racial and ethnic groups represented at the school, conflicts arise over political differences, dress and language — with students sometimes assuming that something being said in a language they don’t understand is derogatory. “It definitely ebbs and flows,” Sparks said.

Students who are new to the U.S. also sometimes come with more conservative customs around basics such as fashion. “A lot of things that American kids are into and doing I think become a cultural shock to some of the students from various countries,” Sparks said.

Mediating the range of conflicts that can arise is not simple. It’s critically important that students of color see themselves represented in the adults in the building, Sparks said. It’s not just a school issue, he added. “It’s an issue for all of us.”

Parents such as Stephanie Seguino, whose son is African-American, believe it’s past time for the school district to recruit more teachers and administrators of color. It’s “huge burden” for students who don’t see themselves represented in the faculty or administration, she said. “They face many, many challenges and a good deal of subtle discrimination that many students as well as adults are not aware that they are perpetuating.”

Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Burlington schools, said the district wants to hire more people of color. Some progress was made this year, with the hiring of a black science teacher at Burlington High School, for example.

The district has begun to institute “cultural bias” training for all people on interview teams and has set a goal of bringing more minority parents onto hiring committees. Parents sometimes participate in hiring committees for school principals but rarely are part of teacher hiring committees.

Collins did not have demographic data on new hires for next year and said the hiring process is not complete. The district recently hired three new elementary school principals set to start this summer. All are white. Data provided by the district from SchoolSpring.com, an employment service for educators, suggest few minorities applied. The Flynn principal job drew one confirmed black applicant and one Hispanic applicant, out of a total of 40 applicants. Not all applicants chose to disclose their race, however, so those numbers might not portray the full picture on minority candidates.

Collins said the district went beyond its usual hiring practices and reached out to traditionally black colleges, for example. But very, very, few minorities applied, she said.

Dan Balon, director of diversity and equity for Burlington schools, said he understands parents’ frustration. He said he is committed to increasing diversity in the faculty and staff. The district will provide an update to a school board subcommittee on the matter June 16, he said.
(3 of 3)

“It’s very complex,” Balon said. “It’s not just our selection process, there are lots of issues related to climate for the city and the community.”

Henri Sparks, coordinator of student and family support services for the Burlington Schools, is among the district’s black employees and serves on the Parents for Diversity committee. He runs several programs, including the alternative day program at Burlington High School.

With many cultures, nations and racial and ethnic groups represented at the school, conflicts arise over political differences, dress and language — with students sometimes assuming that something being said in a language they don’t understand is derogatory. “It definitely ebbs and flows,” Sparks said.

Students who are new to the U.S. also sometimes come with more conservative customs around basics such as fashion. “A lot of things that American kids are into and doing I think become a cultural shock to some of the students from various countries,” Sparks said.

Mediating the range of conflicts that can arise is not simple. It’s critically important that students of color see themselves represented in the adults in the building, Sparks said. It’s not just a school issue, he added. “It’s an issue for all of us.”

“It’s very complex,” Balon said. “It’s not just our selection process, there are lots of issues related to climate for the city and the community.”

Henri Sparks, coordinator of student and family support services for the Burlington Schools, is among the district’s black employees and serves on the Parents for Diversity committee. He runs several programs, including the alternative day program at Burlington High School.

With many cultures, nations and racial and ethnic groups represented at the school, conflicts arise over political differences, dress and language — with students sometimes assuming that something being said in a language they don’t understand is derogatory. “It definitely ebbs and flows,” Sparks said.

Students who are new to the U.S. also sometimes come with more conservative customs around basics such as fashion. “A lot of things that American kids are into and doing I think become a cultural shock to some of the students from various countries,” Sparks said.

Mediating the range of conflicts that can arise is not simple. It’s critically important that students of color see themselves represented in the adults in the building, Sparks said. It’s not just a school issue, he added. “It’s an issue for all of us.”

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