If you walked into a kindergarten classroom in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota, a generation ago, you could have joked that the greatest amount of diversity was between Lutherans and Catholics. Today, up to 50 percent of students in Austin elementary schools are nonwhite. You can walk into a kindergarten classroom filled with children representing a half dozen cultures. Where Sudanese, Mexican, Laotian and Karen 6-year-olds learn their numbers and letters alongside students of Norwegian, German and Swedish ancestry.
Across every corner of our state, rural, suburban and even urban districts are challenged with new and changing levels of student diversity. Yet when these students – the faces of Minnesota’s future – show up to start a new school year, they see teachers and role-models who are overwhelmingly white.
Teacher diversity lags
Minnesota teachers, across all types of districts, are tremendously (95 percent or higher) white, while students of color make up larger and larger shares of our classrooms.
Even in our state’s most diverse district, the children of Minneapolis see a teaching work force whose diversity significantly lags behind that of its students. At Bancroft Elementary for example, 85 percent of students are nonwhite. Yet 87 percent of teachers are white. At South High, 60 percent of students are nonwhite while 88 percent of its teachers are white.
These numbers matter. Decades of studies demonstrate quantifiable positive impacts that teachers of color have on students of color. Improving overall school experiences, increasing academic outcomes, serving as role models, holding high expectations, teaching with cultural competency, and developing caring relationships are all outcomes that can be linked to a more diverse work force.
But it also matters in less quantitative ways. For anyone who has been an educator, there are innumerable ways in which identity and background can build bridges between teacher and student. As a male teacher who has taught first, second and third grade, I know the important connection that a male teacher can make with younger boys. Having also worked with an African-American population and a Somali population, I know the challenges of building relationships among different populations.
The challenge will grow
This challenge is only going to become more pressing as each school year passes. By 2050 the Pew Research Center projects 34 percent of U.S. school children will be immigrants or the children of immigrants. Overall, as of this fall, the majority of children in U.S. schools were expected to be nonwhite.
The time to confront the issue openly and honestly is now, and I am looking forward to addressing these issues as a member of the newly formed Educators 4 Excellence Teacher Policy Team on Teacher Diversity. Nationally and locally there has been no shortage of news events where race and diversity play a prominent role. Our public institutions are a reflection of our priorities. Let us seize this opportunity and give our students a teaching work force that is more diverse.
Anthony Hernandez is a graduate of Austin Public Schools, a member of Educators 4 Excellence-Minnesota, and currently a third-year elementary school teacher in Columbia Heights.
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