Color barrier dividing Iowa's public school teachers, students

State's students much more ethnically diverse than teaching workforce

Published: January 29 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:48 am in
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As far as student percentages go, the Storm Lake Community School District, in northwest Iowa, is the state’s most ethnically diverse in terms of percentages.

Of the district’s 2,442 students enrolled this school year, 1,963 of them (80.38 percent) identify as nonwhite.

“We don’t use the word minority in Storm Lake,” said Lori Porsch, the district’s curriculum and special education director. “We just think it’s not really genuine here when the word doesn’t mean the same thing.”

But when it comes to the teaching staff, that diversity fades quickly.

Iowa Department of Education data for the 2012-13 school year shows that only 4.88 percent of Storm Lake’s licensed full-time and part-time staff identifies as minority. That amounts to 10 of 205 employees.

“Diversifying our teaching staff has been something that has been very important to us. I’d say, the last five to seven years, we’ve been working really hard on it,” Porsch said. “Our staff is not as diverse as we’d like it to be, but we are successful in starting to make those things happen.”

Even with numbers that Porsch said need improvement, Storm Lake has the 10th most ethnically diverse licensed staff by percentage of Iowa’s public school districts. The Dubuque Community School District leads the state with 7.77 percent, which amounts to 85 employees of color among the district’s 1,094-member licensed work force — which is still less than the 17.14 percent of Dubuque students who identify as something other than white.

The issue is much larger than Dubuque and Storm Lake. Of the state’s 348 public school districts, 200 – including the Marion Independent, Clear Creek Amana and Mount Vernon community school districts – employed no licensed staff members of color in 2012-13, according to Iowa Department of Education data.

Students and teachers

A color barrier is dividing Iowa’s public kindergarten-through-grade-12 teachers and their students.

The 2013 Annual Condition of Education report, which Iowa Department of Education officials released on Jan. 15, showed that the percentage of full-time public school teachers who identify as “minority” – meaning they report an “ethnicity of Hispanic and/or reported race of American Indian/Alaskan Native, African American, Asian, Pacific Islander or multiple races,” remained virtually stagnant at 2.2 percent in both 2011-12 and 2012-13.

During that same time period, the amount of “minority” public K-12 students grew to 20.2 percent from 19.3 percent.

“We want a more diverse work force but there’s some things that we just can’t ensure. If we follow the law in terms of how we recruit and hire, it’s a challenge," said Tom Ahart, Des Moines Public Schools superintendent. “We don’t have clear research that would indicate that achievement among students improves in relation to having teachers and administrators who have diversity.

"We do think it’s important that all of our students have models of successful educators that reflect our student population,  just in terms of having visible models that they can aspire to, that the door isn’t closed to anyone.”

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that, in 2007-08, 83 percent of public school teachers identified as white, while only 52.4 percent of public K-12 students identified as white in 2010.

Heather Cofield, a fourth-grade teacher at Johnson Elementary School in Cedar Rapids who identifies as black, said the importance of ethnic identification between students and teachers is about communication.

“Many times I’ve been told here (by other staff members) there are certain things I can say to the kids that they can’t say to the kids,” she said. “There are connections we can make with the kids that other teachers haven’t made with them.”

Recruitment and retention  

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that 92.8 percent of Iowans identify as white. Administrators in Storm Lake and the Des Moines Public Schools — the latter of which is the state’s largest public school district and ranks seventh in percentage of students of color (55.34 percent) — have sought to recruit teachers of color from other, more-diverse cities. The results have varied.

“We just were not successful in those ventures,” Porsch said of attempts to recruit teachers from Arizona and Kansas City, Mo. “If you’re 22 and you’re looking for a job, Storm Lake doesn’t measure up to Kansas City, Chicago or Minneapolis. … Even within the state, we can’t compete with Des Moines, Cedar Rapids or Waterloo.”

Superintendent Ahart said Des Moines faces its own recruitment struggles.

“Getting folks to relocate to Iowa and Des Moines is a challenge,” he said, noting that previous district openings have been advertised in St. Louis, Omaha and Minneapolis. “Oftentimes they may be moving to a new job not because of their job but because of a spouse’s job. … People don’t tend to look at Des Moines specifically as a destination.”

Metropolis, Ill., native Cofield moved from Springfield, Ill., to Cedar Rapids because she had a friend in the city. Cofield is now in her third, and final, year teaching fourth grade at Johnson, which is in the Cedar Rapids Community School District.

“If it was just easier for people to get here or for me to get there, that would be a huge help,” said Cofield, whose family is still in southern Illinois. “It’s just kind of out of the way for anything.

"I feel like no one can come here to visit. It’s either got to be a plane ride or a seven-hour drive.”

Cofield – who said her black seventh-grade teacher inspired her own career choice – is planning to move to Atlanta, potentially for a lower-paying job. Cofield said she’s relocating for better weather and a chance to be more accessible to her family and friends.

In 2012-13, she was one of the Cedar Rapids district’s 42 licensed staff members of color. That’s 2.63 percent of the district’s total licensed work force.

“The people I work with are wonderful, and I’ve made a lot of great friends here,” she said. “I don’t know that there’s anything that could’ve helped me stay here. … If you don’t have family here, I just feel like it’s kind of tough.”

Stephanie Logan, an associate professor in the University of Northern Iowa's College of Education, said social and professional isolation confront many teachers of color who work in areas that lack ethnic diversity.

“We all need a sense of community, and at some level we look for people who we have something, whether it’s on the surface or something deeper, in common with,” she said. “To come here and be the only teacher of color, that would be taxing on that individual.”

Growing their own

Both the Storm Lake and Des Moines districts are part of initiatives designed to increase ethnic diversity from within.

Des Moines administrators announced in August 2013 the formation of the 3D Coalition, a partnership with Des Moines Area Community College and Drake University to identify and support people of color who aspire to become educators. Superintendent Ahart estimated that about 20 people are involved, and leaders are seeking grant funding.

The coalition is set to offer learning technology, flexible work schedules and financial assistance to those who need them to complete the training to become instructors.

“It’ll make a difference, but it’ll still be a very small incremental improvement on that goal,” Ahart said.

Storm Lake administrators are also working to create a bridge for district instructional assistants – who are often bilingual people of color, Porsch said, because “we believe those are role models for our students” – to complete their college coursework and become classroom teachers.

“We kind of have this system of grow our own,” Porsch said.

Porsch said the district has good relationships with neighboring Buena Vista University and UNI. That allows higher education students to volunteer and work in the district’s schools and form the connections Porsch said are so crucial to recruiting classroom staff.

“Unless they have a connection in Storm Lake, they don’t really see this as a place that meets their needs because of our size,” Porsch said of starting teachers.

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