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Local schools attempt to close student-teacher color gap

Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on October 27, 2018 12:07AM

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisStudent teacher Shelby Spriet points to where she wants second-grader Kylee Lucero to start reading while teaching a class about the brain on Friday at McKay Creek Elementary School in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisStudent teacher Shelby Spriet points to where she wants second-grader Kylee Lucero to start reading while teaching a class about the brain on Friday at McKay Creek Elementary School in Pendleton.

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Staff photo by E.J. HarrisStudent teacher Shelby Spriet answers a question about an assignment from second-grader Riley Williams on Friday at McKay Creek Elementary School in Pendleton.

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisStudent teacher Shelby Spriet answers a question about an assignment from second-grader Riley Williams on Friday at McKay Creek Elementary School in Pendleton.

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The fall has been a watershed moment for Shelby Spriet.

A Pendleton native, Spriet has spent the school year student teaching second grade at McKay Creek Elementary School and is closing in on a lifelong dream.

“Ever since I knew I had to have a job (when I grew up), I wanted to be a teacher,” she said.

It’s been a watershed moment for Eastern Oregon University too because Spriet represents the first graduate from its Oregon Teacher Pathway program.

A partnership between the EOU College of Education and several local school districts that began in 2014, Oregon Teacher Pathway is meant to create a “grow your own” pipeline to school districts in the region by stoking high schoolers’ interest in teaching before offering them discounted tuition to the university.

But as the first class of Pathway graduates begin to look for work, EOU is still trying to fulfill the other part of the program mission — to produce more teachers of color in a rapidly diversifying region.

The wide disparity between the students who go to public schools and the educators who teach them isn’t restricted to Eastern Oregon. According to the Oregon Educator Equity Report, there’s nearly a 28-point gap between students of color and minority teachers across the state.

Oregon has seen the percentage of teachers who identify as “ethnically diverse” rise six points from just 3.9 percent in 1997-98.

But nonwhite students have grown at a much faster rate, creating a stubborn gap in a state where more than a third of the student body are now children of color.

Statewide issue

Anay Mendoza of Umatilla has also wanted to be a teacher for quite some time.

Mendoza said she started expressing interest in the profession when she was in fifth grade, and when she wrote a report about it, she was drafted into Umatilla High School’s Pathway program.

Required to take a class and complete a project to qualify to reduce their per credit tuition cost from $159 to $45, Mendoza said her early interest in teaching was confirmed when she starting participating in Pathway.

“I knew this is what I wanted to do,” she said.

Although Umatilla is 43 percent Latino and its school district 73 percent nonwhite, the district’s faculty is majority white.

Mendoza said she wasn’t taught under any Latino teachers until she reached high school, and as a Latina herself, she said it would have been nice to have had a role model who shared her background and culture when she struggled at school.

Creating a more diverse faculty isn’t just a feel-good move — academic studies show that students that are demographically matched with their teachers perform better in school, are less likely to drop out, and bring higher morale to the classroom.

Once they graduated high school, both Spriet and Mendoza began taking classes at EOU, where they took a class in cultural responsiveness and met requirements to obtain an English for speakers of other languages endorsement.

Both women want to work in their hometown districts once they graduate, and Mendoza would help Umatilla close its student-teacher color gap.

The state has long recognized the gap as an issue, passing the Minority Teacher Act in 2001, which set a goal of matching the percentage of student and teacher demographics by 2001.

The Oregon Legislature began amending the act after it failed to meet the goal.

Reforms in 2013 and 2015 required the state to produce annual reports on teacher-student equity and directed all of the state’s public education programs to create plans that would lead to a more diverse teacher workforce.

Since then, the state has also created a scholarship program for “culturally or linguistically diverse teaching candidates,” and eventually wants to create a publicity campaign to attract students of color to the profession.

But ultimately, the effort to diversify the state’s educators is the responsibility of the administrators and hiring panels who select them.

Local successes

Although the Umatilla School District is a member of the Pathway program, district Superintendent Heidi Sipe said her school system has adopted a “grow your own” mentality in 2005.

That’s the year the district began employing Umatilla High School students to manage its after-school program, giving older students a chance to get hands-on experience as educational mentors.

Sipe said the program spurred students of color to go out and get their education before returning to teach, boosting the share of minority of teachers from 3 percent in 2012-13 to 12 percent in 2017-18.

Milton-Freewater is another community with a heavily Latino student body and a predominantly white staff.

When he took over as superintendent of the Milton-Freewater Unified School District in 2013, Rob Clark said he was surprised about the lack of teachers of color.

“I was absolutely shocked,” he said.

Milton-Freewater’s share of minority teachers is now at 16 percent. Clark said students of color need role models that look like them, comparing it to his efforts to hire more female coaches for girls’ sports when he was an athletic director in Central Washington.

Like Umatilla, Clark said many of his new hires come from the Milton-Freewater area.

Although McLoughlin High School also has a Pathway program, Clark said it will take some time to create results for his district.

Systemic barriers

While EOU is supposed to create a pipeline for minority teacher candidates, the current student body in its college of education doesn’t reflect that goal.

According to the equity report, the program was comprised of only 7 percent nonwhite students in 2017-2018, the lowest of any education program in a public or private school.

Tawnya Lubbes, an assistant professor of education and leader of the Pathway program, said some EOU students may have underreported their ethnic heritage, but systemic barriers remain for students to get into the education program.

Districts that have struggled to raise the number of teachers of color in their faculty enumerated some of those barriers.

While the Hermiston School District is more than half nonwhite, it’s diversity share has flitted between 8 percent and 9 percent for the past seven years.

Although the district offers a Pathway program and a tuition reimbursement program for its classified staff, which tend to be more diverse than teachers, Human Resource Director David Marshall said the district is having trouble filling teaching positions in general, and the majority of the applicants who do apply are white.

The Pendleton School District isn’t included in the state’s equity report because it doesn’t surpass 40 percent minority students, but the district joined the Pathway program in hopes of attracting more American Indian teachers to meet the needs of its student population from the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

Matt Yoshioka, curriculum, instruction, and assessment director for the Pendleton School District, said the Pendleton school system is now down to one American Indian faculty member.

Yoshioka said he’s considering having school staff meet with every high school student individually to talk about exploring the teaching profession, including students at Nixyaawii Community School, a charter school that enrolls many tribal students.

Hilda Rosselli, the director of career and college readiness for the Oregon Chief Education Office, said the barriers could go as deep as the testing students need to pass to obtain their teaching license.

Rosselli said some students who learned English as a second language might struggle with the test and the state is looking into making changes that would be fairer to that population without watering down the test. The state has also provided implicit bias training to educators who sit on hiring panels. Rosselli said that without being aware of it, educators can favor candidates who share their background and experiences.

Oregon still faces the challenge of presenting teachers that match the diversity of their students, but Rosselli said the state is making a lot of progress by just increasing awareness around the issue.


Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.


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