Public school teachers in Northwest Arkansas are overwhelmingly white and non-Hispanic, pushing some school districts to reach out to applicants with Hispanic, Pacific Islander and other backgrounds.
Nearly half of the students in the Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers and Springdale school districts are Hispanic, Marshallese or part of another minority, according to Arkansas Department of Education data. Minority students in Springdale comprise a two-thirds majority.
By the numbers
Public school teachers for major area districts are mostly non-Hispanic white while the student body is much more diverse. Research has found teacher diversity can bring benefits for all students.
District * Minority student enrollment * Minority certified teachers
Bentonville * 26 percent * 3 percent
Fayetteville * 32 percent * 7 percent
Rogers * 54 percent * 8 percent
Springdale * 66 percent * 7 percent
Source: Arkansas Department of Education 2017-2018 school year data
Certified teachers in all four districts, meanwhile, are 90 percent non-Hispanic white.
Local administrators and former and current students have said teachers of all demographic groups can be competent and make meaningful connections with students. But years of research have found minority students benefit from having teachers who look like them and diverse teachers can benefit the entire student body.
"We're able to understand each other a little better," said Christhian Saavedra, a middle school Spanish teacher and Rogers Heritage High School varsity boys soccer coach. He grew up in El Salvador but attended Rogers schools from 13 on. "I can bridge that gap and just offer those opportunities that were offered to me."
Districts are trying multiple ways to recruit more teachers like Saavedra and train others to teach immigrant students.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has partnered with Bentonville, Springdale and other local districts to help almost 200 teachers so far earn endorsements for teaching English learners in their various subjects. Rogers offers bonuses for Hispanic teachers through a Walton Family Foundation grant. And Springdale and the university recently began helping interested bilingual instruction assistants and staff members become licensed teachers.
"We felt that was a really good pool to grow our own," said Diana Gonzales Worthen, who helps run the university-district programs at the College of Education and Health Professions. "Basically, we're trying to catch up."
Making a difference
The mismatch between students and teachers is a nationwide pattern as the population becomes more diverse, according to the National Education Association, a professional organization and advocate for public education.
A research review from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute found a lack of diversity can cause isolation for students in the minority and leave members of the majority uncomfortable interacting with the minority.
Researchers in recent years have found a diverse group of teachers, on the other hand, can bring a host of benefits. Black teachers have higher expectations of black students' abilities and potential, according to a 2016 study from researchers at Johns Hopkins and American universities. Some of the same researchers a year later reported having a black elementary school teacher meant black students later drop out of high school less often and plan more for higher education.
Students of all races had more favorable views of black and Hispanic teachers and felt more motivated and supported by them, according to a 2016 study from New York University based on surveys of tens of thousands of students.
"The most important thing is the students of color are comfortable, are able to see someone who somehow is 'successful,'" said Juan Jose Bustamante, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Arkansas who studies the local Hispanic population.
"You have the capacity or capability to inspire students. When you inspire students, students are able to maximize their potential," he said.
Neimony Netwon, a university freshman from a Marshallese family who's studying to become a teacher, said she's already seen this impact. Marshallese kids at a local junior high school clustered around her during one of her class observations, fascinated by the first Marshallese student observer they'd seen.
"I didn't think they would notice, but they did," Netwon said. "They think they can go to college as well."
She added she'll teach in the Marshall Islands for a few years in return for a scholarship from that nation, but she plans to return to Northwest Arkansas because she likes the place and it's close to family.
A Rogers soccer coach who was born in Chile first suggested Saavedra play soccer, he said. The man is the only Hispanic teacher he recalls having and became a mentor, talking with Saavedra about his classes and everyday struggles and making him feel like he was part of the education system.
Non-Hispanic teachers helped too, introducing a kid who grew up without electricity to the ideas of college and Advanced Placement classes.
"This district seriously has what it takes for kids to be successful," Saavedra said.
He tries to fill the same roles for his students and team, talking with immigrant parents about higher education, understanding many of them work long hours and taking their kids to visit colleges. During an after-school practice at Heritage last week, he often switched to Spanish to shout some maneuver or joke around with members of the heavily Hispanic soccer team.
Saavedra's in his fourth year of teaching and called it his dream job. Last week he was named middle school teacher of the year in the district.
He's one of more than 30 Hispanic teachers and administrators hired in the Rogers district since 2013, more than doubling its number, said Roger Hill, assistant superintendent for human resources. The Walton foundation grant pays Hispanic recruits $2,000 to relocate and $5,000 if they stay for five years.
"We're making good progress," said Hill, who has traveled to Texas and New Mexico universities trying to recruit recent education graduates. Most of the new hires are originally from here, because it's hard to convince people from other states to leave families behind. That means waiting for the area's own first- and second-generation immigrant students to go through school and college and start teaching careers.
"It always takes time," said Jared Cleveland, Springdale's deputy superintendent for personnel and facilities.
Cleveland said Gonzales Worthen approached him with the idea of a program for Hispanic staff members to be paid instructional assistants while attending college to get teaching degrees.
Gonzales Worthen said Northwest Arkansas Community College and many others helped bring the new program together with about $2.7 million from the U.S. Education Department. The money covers tuition left over from financial aid and helps with book costs.
The grant and other money from the education department will keep the English as a Second Language training program running for teachers in Springdale and around the state, according to a news release from the university college of education. Gonzales Worthen and associate professor Janet Penner-Williams oversee the work.
Three staff members have graduated from the teaching-degree program and now teach at the elementary school level in Springdale, Gonzales Worthen said. She's recruiting 13 more -- slow going, but enough to perhaps make a difference for some students.
"That's really what all of this is about," she said. "I think the pieces are all coming together."
NW News on 04/15/2018