Omar Alonzo believes his ability to relate to Hispanic students he encounters as a music teacher in the Springdale School District is important.
Alonzo, like nearly half of the district's students, is Hispanic. He grew up in Springdale, but his parents are from Mexico. He understands where Hispanic students are coming from, and when he needs to, he can speak their native language.
Charting the course
Some local programs are creating a more diverse teaching base.
Arkansas Teacher Cadets is a college-level course aimed at attracting the brightest high school students to education. The program is available in numerous school districts across the state.
Arkansas Teacher Corps, a program of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, recruits and trains teachers to help fill positions for jobs in poor areas of the state. The program focuses on hiring teachers from different backgrounds.
Bentonville School District’s Ignite program hopes to “grow its own” teachers. Ignite, in its fourth year, immerses high school students in a professional environment with support from a facilitating teacher and professional mentors. It offers classes in eight career fields, one of which is education. Thirty-eight students were enrolled in Ignite’s education program this past year, 28 of whom graduated in May.
In theory, the students who go into the program will reflect the district’s demographics as a whole.
Source: Staff report
"I can joke around with them and have very meaningful conversations with them in Spanish," said Alonzo, 29.
The Springdale schools' minority population, fueled mostly by an increase in Hispanics, has grown over the past 15 years. The number of students identified as non-Hispanic white dropped from 59 percent in 2004 to 34 percent this year, according to state data.
The makeup of Springdale's teachers, counselors and administrators, however, remains about 94 percent white. That's similar to the percentages reported by Northwest Arkansas' other large school districts, including Bentonville, Rogers and Fayetteville.
Research shows greater teacher diversity leads to better academic results, lower discipline referral rates and higher expectations for all students, especially those of color.
Nationally, however, about 20% of all educators identify as people of color, while students of color comprise more than 50% of the K-12 student population, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Walton Family Foundation this year announced a $3.5 million grant to the NewSchools Venture Fund to support efforts nationwide to recruit, train and support a more diverse teacher workforce.
Springdale, like other Northwest Arkansas school districts, is looking to hire more qualified minority candidates. Jared Cleveland, Springdale's deputy superintendent, called it a "monumental" task, noting it's hard to find anyone -- regardless of race or ethnicity -- for some positions.
"There's a significant teacher shortage," he said.
Not all are satisfied with how their schools are treating minorities.
Alice Gachuzo-Colin, who is black, graduated from Springdale High School in 1997. She lives in Springdale with her three children. One attends Springdale High and two others attend Jones Elementary School.
Gachuzo-Colin said she loves the city, the schools, and the Hispanic and Marshallese communities. But while the district does much to cater to its large populations of Hispanic and Marshallese students, it overlooks the roughly 2.4% of its students -- about 523 total, as of last fall -- who are black, she said.
"Sometimes I have to ask myself, do they love me as an African-American. Do they love my babies as much as they love that Hispanic baby or that Marshallese baby," she said.
What studies say
Minority students benefit from seeing adult role models who look like them in positions of authority, researchers at the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington Bothell said in a 2015 policy brief. The center's researchers said minority teachers are more likely to have high expectations for minority students.
The policy brief reported cultural differences between students and teachers as a reason black students, for example, are more likely to be disciplined than other youth, even after accounting for the nature of students' misconduct.
Black students accounted for almost 24% of in-school and 25% of out-of-school suspensions at Fayetteville High School in 2015, but accounted for 9.5% of enrollment, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Those disparities could be based in part on teacher interpretation of student behavior, which may be formed by negative stereotypes, according to the brief.
Sarah McKenzie, executive director of the Office for Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, said teachers can take steps to enhance understanding of students' backgrounds. One simple step is to take a tour of the neighborhoods where their students live, she said.
Staff members at Reagan Elementary School in Rogers have boarded a bus the past two years before the school year starts for a tour of the school's attendance zone. Staff members handed out Popsicles during last year's tour.
Some schools run summer bookmobiles traveling through neighborhoods.
The Fayetteville School Board recently embarked on a strategic planning process. A focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is woven throughout the plan, said Greg Mones, the district's human resources director.
About 32% of students and 5.4% of staff at Fayetteville schools are racial minorities. Mones would like to raise the percentage of minority teachers to at least 6.6% for the 2019-20 school year.
The district hired 57 new teachers for the coming school year as of late June; 17 of them, or 30%, are minorities. They include eight who are black, seven Hispanic, one Asian and one American Indian, according to Mones.
"We are on target now for that 6.6% goal," Mones said. "It will be maintaining that in future years that will make the difference. It's definitely going to be a multi-year process, but I think this was a good first step."
Like other big districts, Fayetteville sends representatives to job fairs in March. They went this year to Conway, Pine Bluff, Russellville and Memphis, Tenn.
John L Colbert, the district's superintendent, is black and the only superintendent who represents a racial or ethnic minority in Northwest Arkansas. Minority teachers are attracted to places for the same quality of life factors -- good schools, a healthy economy and a low crime rate -- that attract everyone else, he said. But the area's cultural and social scenes also play a big role.
Colbert, when speaking to minority job candidates, stresses the diversity of acts the Walton Arts Center and the Walmart Arkansas Music Pavilion bring to the area, as well as everything the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art offers.
"If we want to continue to diversify Northwest Arkansas, we have to think about the social life," Colbert said. "We have to let people know, 'yes, we may be in Northwest Arkansas, but we bring in the best.' So that is always part of my presentation when I talk to people of color. Otherwise, we would not get them here. They want to have a social life. That's important to them."
One place where diversity has been an issue is at the state's top-ranked high school.
Haas Hall Academy has earned numerous accolades since the charter school opened in 2004. U.S. News & World Report named its Fayetteville campus the seventh best high school in the nation this year.
State officials, however, have expressed concern for years the student demographics aren't nearly as diverse as those of the communities in which Haas Hall has schools: Fayetteville, Bentonville, Rogers and Springdale.
At Haas Hall Rogers, for example, 13% of students are Hispanic compared to 45% for the Rogers School District. English language learners make up 16.5% of students at Haas Hall, about half that of the district's percentage.
In addition, 9% of Haas Hall's teachers across all four schools are minorities.
Johnny Key, Arkansas education commissioner, addressing Haas Hall officials at a state board meeting in April, acknowledged the good results, but added, "We want you to show us that you can do this for all kids."
Open-enrollment charter schools such as Haas Hall can draw students from anywhere in the state. Any student may apply; if applications exceed space available, a lottery determines admission.
The challenge, officials said, is drawing enough applications from those of diverse backgrounds so the student enrollment is more likely to reflect the community's demographics. Key offered the state's assistance to that end, an offer Superintendent Martin Schoppmeyer accepted.
"I'm excited the state is willing to help us," Schoppmeyer said.
Unlike some states, Arkansas doesn't allow charter schools to give extra weight to applications from students of a certain demographic, McKenzie said. That makes it challenging for schools to diversify, especially because Haas Hall -- like most other charters in Arkansas -- gives admission preference to siblings of current students, she said.
"Because, when Haas Hall started in 2005, they had 16 kids, and they were all Caucasian. So as siblings come through, those are granted priority, which reduces the opportunity that kids who aren't siblings, and maybe are more diverse, have at getting into the school," she said.
Sabrina Arellano has observed how her ethnicity and ability to speak Spanish make a difference to her Spanish-speaking students and their parents as well.
Arellano is a second-grade teacher at Springdale's Lee Elementary School, where she's worked since 2011. About 15 of her 25 students are Hispanic.
Arellano can communicate directly with the parents rather than relying on an interpreter. Because of her ethnicity and because she's bilingual, she's more likely than other teachers to have Spanish-speaking parents volunteer to be homeroom moms or to help out in other ways, she said.
Arellano also doesn't have the same struggles as other teachers getting parents to attend conferences, she said.
"I feel like I have an advantage because I know Spanish. I know a little about their culture," said Arellano, 29, whose parents immigrated from Ecuador. "During parent-teacher conferences, they will talk my head off just about random stuff because they know they can communicate. They'll just tell me things, like what's going on in their home life, things like that. Just building that rapport is great."
Arellano attended Springdale schools from prekindergarten through high school. She was the first Hispanic alumna to teach in the district. She never had any Hispanic teachers growing up. She said she didn't give it much thought at the time.
"It was just what was expected," she said.
Arellano said she was inspired to pursue teaching at an early age, by her first-grade teacher -- "the best teacher ever," she said. Her parents insisted she go to college.
She said many Hispanics don't get that push from their parents to pursue higher education; instead, they just want to graduate from high school and go straight to work, Arellano said. It would help to make parents and their children more aware of the career opportunities available, she said.
The number of Hispanic high school graduates pursing higher education is on the rise nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The college-going rate increased from 22 to 37 percent between 2000 and 2015.
Alonzo, the music teacher, graduated from Springdale High School with Arellano in 2007. Growing up, he thought about going to college, but was uncertain it was an option for him. No one in his family had gone to college. None of his six older siblings finished high school.
As a student at Kelly Middle School, however, he met band director Earl Allain, who noticed Alonzo's talent playing the clarinet and encouraged him to think about music as a career. Alonzo ended up receiving a full scholarship to the University of Central Arkansas because of his clarinet skills.
He hopes to make the same impact on his students as Allain did on him.
Jesus Castillo, a freshman at Southwest Junior High School, has attended Springdale schools for about eight years. Spanish is his first language. He had two Hispanic teachers this school year, including Alonzo.
But Jesus, 14, doesn't put much weight on the ethnicity or race of his teachers.
"I think it doesn't really matter," he said. "All teachers should treat students the same. The public schools I've gone to, they're all nice. They don't judge people for their ethnicity."
Jesus has three siblings in the district and none of them have had any problems, he said.
Room to improve
Gachuzo-Colin said her kids in Springdale schools frequently are called racist names by other kids, and the offenders don't face any consequences, she said.
Superintendent Jim Rollins, in a written response, said young people, like adults, at times make poor choices and say hurtful things.
"If any staff member is aware of such incidents, we deal specifically and timely with any questionable behavior," Rollins wrote.
As for complaints the district overlooks black students, Rollins wrote, "The Springdale School District is committed to teaching all children at the highest level. This is a daily commitment whether a student comes from across the street or across the ocean. They are all our children."
Gachuzo-Colin lives in the Lee Elementary School zone -- named after Robert E. Lee -- but drives her kids to Jones Elementary School because she doesn't want them attending a school named after the general who led the South in the U.S. Civil War. Retaining that name is a "clear slap in the face," she said.
Her 10-year-old daughter several months ago had a substitute teacher who was black. She was excited about having a teacher who resembled her, Gachuzo-Colin said. Other students, however, accused her of being racist because she got so excited about her teacher's race, she said.
She saw no one who looked like her in authority while attending Springdale High, and it made her feel inferior, she said.
"When you don't have anyone that has come across your educational path that remotely looks like you, you begin to question certain things," Gachuzo-Colin said.
The Northwest Arkansas Democratic Black Caucus this year presented Rollins its Barack Obama Lifetime Achievement Award for Diversity in Education.
D'Andre Jones, president and political director of the caucus, said the award recognized Rollins for his "amazing work" in welcoming and embracing diversity within the Springdale School District. Jones added, however, there's more work to be done.
"I'm hoping that Springdale will continue the work and is really able to address equity and inclusion the way that they should be," Jones said.
NW News on 07/28/2019