Student diversity not reflected in staff

By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Alexandria public schools boast a culturally rich student population -- hailing from 128 countries and speaking about 75 languages -- but getting staff members to reflect that student population has been a challenge.

Nearly 37 percent of students in Alexandria schools last school year were black, according to the school system's statistics. Twenty-seven percent were Hispanic; almost 25 percent white; 6 percent Asian; 1 percent Native American; and the rest unspecified.

More than 51 percent of the city's teachers and support staff members, however, are white, based on data from before this school year's first week. Almost 37 percent of the teachers and instructional workers are black, and 8 percent are Hispanic.

The school system hired two Hispanic principals for this school year, and one Hispanic administrator works in the central office, accounting for the system's three Hispanic administrators.

James H. Loomis, director of employment services for Alexandria schools, said attaining a multiethnic workforce requires walking "a very fine line" because federal law requires equal opportunity hiring in the workplace. Alexandria, by law, will hire the most qualified candidate. It is a bonus if that candidate's native language is not English, he said.

To provide a varied pool of applicants, the school system has been casting its recruitment nets in myriad places, Loomis said. Alexandria recruiters have attended job fairs at the universities of South Florida and Puerto Rico and Lehman College in the Bronx, N.Y.

"We try to stress to principals and hiring managers that our goal is a diverse workforce," Loomis said. "But we are not directing people to do it."

One recruitment challenge is the Washington area's high cost of living, Loomis said. Alexandria can offer contracts to potential teachers early in the hiring process and can give an additional step, or one-year salary bonus, at the start, but sometimes that is not enough to attract and keep a new teacher from across the country.

Linda Erdos, a spokeswoman for Arlington County public schools, agreed and said, "Recruiting minority staff continues to be a challenge for all school districts."

Arlington recruiters also visit colleges with large minority student populations and with teaching programs. But with tight budgets, paying teachers well becomes more of a problem, Erdos said.

"To attract and retain a diverse population, you also need to have working conditions and benefits and a lot of other support," said Erdos, who listed professional development, classroom support and mentoring as examples of programs that help new teachers feel more at ease.

Arlington public schools also have a multicultural student body, with about 124 nations and 94 languages represented. More than 48 percent of Arlington's student population is white and 26 percent Hispanic, based on July data. Almost 13 percent of the county's students are black, and 11 percent are Asian.

Nearly 78 percent of Arlington's teachers and support staff members were white, according to October 2009 statistics. About 10 percent of the instructional staff was black and 8 percent Hispanic.

In both school districts, parent liaisons have become a popular resource to welcome the growing multiethnic community. Liaisons are used for translating and to contact people in the community, said Peggy McLeod, executive director of student services for Alexandria schools and a native of Puerto Rico.

"It is clear our superintendent understands it is important to have a staff that represents the population you are serving," said McLeod, who spent her first year as the only Hispanic administrator in the central office. "It sends the community an important message. We do want to reflect our population."

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