A new director role in the school district gives hope for equitable change.
By Sophia Beach
The Bellingham School District has created a new position, titled director of equity, diversity and inclusion. This position will help lead district efforts to confront the institutional bias and implement new equity practices.
According to the Glossary of Education Reform, “In education, the term equity refers to the principle of fairness.”
The school district’s Washington state report card shows that as of the 2019-2020 school year, 92.9% of educators in the Bellingham School District are white. The student demographic report shows that 66.8% of the total student population is white while 1.5% is Black, 5.3% is Asian, 16.8% is Hispanic/Latino, 0.3% is Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, 0.9% is Native American or Alaska Native and 8.3% is two or more races.
The director will support efforts to recruit and develop a diverse workforce, according to the district’s job posting. By diversifying their workforce, students will have more opportunities to connect with teachers who understand their background better and familiarize themselves with an environment more reflective of their community.
The 2017 study, “A Kindergarten Teacher Like Me: The Role of Student-Teacher Race Social-Emotional Development” shows that there is a benefit to having a racial match between student and teacher.
“White teachers’ assessments of students of color may be less positive than those of White students,” according to the study.
Increasing workforce diversity has academic benefits, but it also helps students learn about other cultures and identities from a young age, Dana Smith, a parent whose child attends Squalicum High School, said.
“If there is one area we can help our kids exist as better community members, it’s in understanding how to be in a diverse community,” Smith said.
According to 2018 U.S. Census data, 82.7% of Bellingham’s total population was white. This data also showed that 1.6% of the population was Black, 0.3% was Native American or Alaska Native, 7.1% was Asian, 12.1% was Hispanic or Latino, 0.1% was Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander and 4.1% of the population was two or more races.
Compared to the U.S. Census data for the United States in 2018, 72.2% of the total population was white, 12.7% was Black, 0.9% was Native American or Alaska Native, 5.6% was Asian, 0.2% was Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, 3.4% was two or more races and 18.3% was Hispanic or Latino.
Damara Hightower, an African American educator and vice president of engagement and partnerships for Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, said she agrees with the possible change, but believes that the district should examine its practices on top of diversifying its staff.
According to their website, “Branch Educator is the only non-profit organization in the country dedicated to strengthening, growing, and amplifying the impact of educator preparation at Minority Serving Institutions.”
Their goals include diversifying the educator work force and working to improve equity for students.
“It’s not the melanin that makes the difference,” Hightower said. “It is that those teachers often have higher expectations of those [historically marginalized] students. It’s that those teachers often have a higher tolerance for behavior that needs to be directed for those students, because they understand what motivates some of it.”
Hightower worked as an educator and school administrator for many years before she joined Branch Educator. She said she and her students were greatly aware of which teachers were harder on students of color and helped her students navigate the system to help them succeed.
According to the study, “A Kindergarten Teacher Like Me: The Role of Student-Teacher Race in Social-Emotional Development,” “There is evidence that teachers direct fewer positive and neutral comments toward African American and Latino students, hold lower academic expectations for them and perceive them to be less mature than White students.
“Studies have also found that teachers rate African American and Latino students as having lower levels of attentiveness, lower task orientation and poorer work habits than White students.”
A racial match between student and teacher can also benefit those in different economic situations, according to a 2015 report by the Center for Education and Data Research.
“A match between the race/ethnicity of teachers and students leads to better student outcomes, particularly in high-poverty environments with significant at-risk student populations,” according to the Center for Education and Data.
Hightower believes that focusing on diversity for “diversity’s sake” can be a problem in education.
“They can be smart, but if they can’t teach and can’t reach their students then that’s not good,” Hightower said. “Often we focus on making sure we have educators who look exactly like the children that we serve. While there’s no question having teachers who reflect the student population is very important, it is also important to have educators who are committed to truly understanding the needs, both academic and social, of the student they are trying to serve.”
Travis Bristol, an associate professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, also believes that having teachers reflective of the student body is necessary for educational success.
“There is clear evidence that diversity matters, and in very concrete ways for students of color. There is growing evidence that for white students, they are aware that they are not living in a white world. That the world is changing, and that 90% of the teachers in their school [district] do not reflect their reality,” Bristol said.
Smith agreed that having a diverse teacher workforce can help students see themselves represented in a career path.
“Without models in our schools to show all our kids that teaching and education belongs to everybody and that it has historically been not a very diverse field in our part of the country,” Smith said.
A successful relationship between teachers and students of color is vital to children’s academic proficiency, according to a 2019 study. Just as important is the safety and sanity of educators of color in professional settings where colleagues do not reflect their racial identity, Hightower said.
“There should be opportunities to provide support to the staff once they’re hired,” Hightower said. “There are a lot of teachers who work in environments that they consider to be inhospitable spaces. There isn’t the collegiality or the support that they feel they need to be successful and many of them leave those settings.”
Bristol recently published a study which sought out experiences from Black male teachers who are the sole Black male teacher in their school. The study compared their experiences to Black male teachers in schools with other Black male teachers, also called groupers in the study.
According to the study, “Groupers cited challenging working conditions (such as weak administrative leadership) as their primary reason for wanting to leave.” The next year showed that almost half of these teachers did not return to their original positions in the schools.
“It would be helpful to ask [the district], ‘why isn’t the teacher workforce reflective of the students?’” Bristol said. “Is it because we don’t believe that teacher-to-student ethnoracial math isn’t important? Is it because we haven’t done the work to try and find more teachers of color? Is it because the district is hiring them but they aren’t retaining them?”
Ethnoracial math refers to the ratio of a person’s cultural (ethno-) and racial identity in relation to another person. For example, a Black student who culturally and racially relates to a Black teacher.
Bristol said affinity groups can be very helpful in giving staff support in a workplace where they may be the outlying identity. According to Merriam-Webster, an affinity group is a group of people having a common interest or goal or acting together for a specific purpose.
Isabel Meaker, executive director of family engagement for the district, said that the district’s affinity group has been meeting regularly to discuss how they can continue district support within their system.
Meaker said, “For me, I am a person of color, I have been with the district for 11 years. We have a very supportive system. … I feel that I actually have a voice and that the system is eager to keep changing and be welcoming.”
Meaker said she is confident that any people of color hired by the Bellingham School District will have the support they need.
“What actually made our lives worth living was the support from our system,” Meaker said. “In that regard, we are really lucky. I know there are many organizations in town where people don’t feel the same way about Bellingham, but the school district is a different story.”
Hightower said school districts have many things to consider when choosing a person for a role dedicated to equity and inclusion practices.
“[The district must commit to] real intentionality, as it relates to diversifying the teacher workforce. Not just compositional diversity, but really understanding their student demographic and making sure whomever is serving in that role can be responsive to that community,” Hightower said.
Junga Subedar, a civil rights attorney and committee member for the Racial Justice Coalition in Bellingham, said “From our experience, it would be good [for the Bellingham School District] to have a new person with fresh eyes than to have a new position created with someone that hasn’t been so affected and brainwashed by the institutional culture and the institutional racism that is there already.”
Jay Jordan, executive director of teaching and learning for the district, said they are following human resources protocol for the hiring of this position.
“We have posted the position and we send it out to other organizations that help publicize it for us besides our own website. We’re following our normal practices to get the word out, broader than just our local community,” Jordan said.
Jordan said the district is happy to answer any questions that applicants have about Bellingham or the school district to help them make an informed decision before applying.
Smith said, “For my own kids sake, I’m glad that there is somebody who is going to be looking at these things from a global perspective and finding the spots where we can be doing a better job within our schools.”
Subedar said there are many things for the district to consider as it examines the role it plays in systemic racism.
“The announcement of this change is a step in the right direction of course, but there are a lot of caveats,” Subedar said. “If they don’t do it right, then they aren’t going to achieve anything.”