A student who steps into a classroom in Virginia’s largest school district is likely to be Hispanic, Asian, black or multiracial. Chances are, that student’s teacher will be white.
Students of color made up more than 60 percent of the Fairfax County school district’s enrollment last fall, according to state data. Meanwhile, teachers of color were about 18 percent of the school system’s teaching staff, data from the school district shows.
Officials say they are trying to bridge those differences with recruiting and hiring practices aimed at courting a more racially diverse teaching force. Recruiters have twice taken trips to Puerto Rico in the past two years and participated in employment fairs hosted by institutions that serve people of color.
The redoubled focus has helped, but Superintendent Scott Brabrand said the 188,000-student school system is committed to further diversifying its cadre of teachers.
“We need to have a workforce that reflects the diversity of our students,” he said. “The reality is that our work around hiring teachers of color is improving but it’s still not where we want it to be.”
The Northern Virginia school system is hardly the only district grappling with issues of teacher diversity. The student population throughout the country has diversified dramatically in the past three decades, as the proportion of white K-12 students in public schools fell from 70 percent in the mid-1980s to 51 percent in 2011-2012, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
At the same time, the proportion of nonwhite teachers rose far less sharply, from 13 percent to 18 percent.
In the 2016-2017 school year, 81.5 percent of Fairfax teachers were white, according to data provided by the school district. About 7.3 percent were black, 4.9 percent were Asian, 4.2 percent were Hispanic or Latino and 2 percent were multiracial. Meanwhile, 39.3 percent of Fairfax students were white, 25.4 percent were Hispanic or Latino, 19.5 percent were Asian, 10.1 percent were black and 5.3 percent were multiracial, according to fall 2016 enrollment numbers from the Virginia Department of Education.
The Washington Post requested data on the racial makeup of the school district’s teachers after a George Mason University study published in the spring issue of the Harvard Educational Review asserted that the district discriminated against black teaching applicants.
Researchers did not identify the school system, but current and former school officials previously confirmed to The Post that Fairfax was the subject of the study.
The study determined that black teaching applicants were far less likely than white candidates to receive job offers. Black applicants, the study found, had somewhat more advanced degrees and classroom experience but slightly lower pass rates on a screening test than white candidates. Researchers determined that Hispanic and Asian teacher applicants were hired proportionally to the rate in which they applied.
The study did not examine how candidates fared in job interviews or other in-person interactions crucial to hiring.
For Sean Perryman, education chairman of Fairfax County’s chapter of the NAACP, the breakdown of the school district’s teacher demographics reinforced findings in the university study.
Perryman said he’s aware of the school district’s intensified recruiting efforts but said those strategies don’t address the underlying problem identified in the George Mason study: Black applicants are applying for teaching positions but aren’t being hired at the same rate as their counterparts.
George Mason researchers examined job application information from 2012 that showed black candidates made up about 13 percent of Fairfax’s applicant pool and received 6 percent of job offers. White candidates accounted for 70 percent of applicants and received more than 77 percent of the offers, according to the study.
“It’s not a supply problem,” Perryman said. “It’s a demand problem.”
The study also found that when black applicants were offered jobs, they were usually in schools with a large population of students of color or higher levels of poverty.
Perryman pointed to the differences between West Potomac High School, where last year about 17 percent of teachers were black, and McLean or Langley high schools, where black teachers accounted for 2.3 and 4.8 percent of the teaching force, respectively.
Black students made up 17.3 percent of West Potomac’s enrollment in fall 2016, compared with 2.5 percent at McLean and 1.2 percent at Langley, according to state data. A greater share of West Potomac students also were considered economically disadvantaged.
Judith Howard, chairwoman of the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, a school board advisory group, said she hadn’t yet reviewed the school district’s data. In May, the committee requested that the district appoint an outside investigator to examine findings in the George Mason study.
The committee, which studies student achievement gaps in the county, will examine the racial makeup of educators in schools that receive Title I funding, have large populations of students of color or campuses with high levels of poverty.
Fairfax doesn’t keep data on candidates who reject job offers, officials said, but the school system provided information on applicants who accepted positions they were offered.
In 2016-2017, white candidates made up 65.8 percent of qualified applicants and accounted for 74.8 percent of candidates who ended up working in the district. Black applicants made up 11.3 percent of qualified applicants and accounted for 8.5 percent of teachers who accepted teaching posts.
For the same time period, Hispanic applicants accounted for 6.2 percent of qualified applicants and accounted for 6 percent of teachers who accepted positions with the school district. Asian teachers represented 7.5 percent of qualified applicants and 6.7 percent of teachers who ultimately joined the district.
In addition to recruitment, Fairfax also will focus on retaining teachers of color, said Chace Ramey, assistant superintendent for human resources, and soon will mandate that a minimum number of candidates be interviewed for teaching positions.
The school district’s human resources department screens teacher applicants for qualifications such as proper licensing and degrees, but much of the hiring is left to individual schools. Requiring that a certain number of applicants be interviewed, Ramey said, “ensures that more individuals have opportunities for positions that are available.”
Racial diversity among teachers varies significantly throughout the district, with some schools having few or no teachers of color while others have significantly higher numbers.
Last year, all teachers at Franklin Sherman Elementary School in McLean were white, while 58 percent of teachers at Mount Vernon Woods Elementary School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax were nonwhite.
Brabrand, the superintendent, said schools with more students from affluent families tend to have fewer teachers of color. Teacher diversity, he said, benefits students who interact with those of a different race or gender, while students of color also benefit from seeing teachers who resemble them.
“Every child needs to be able to see their hopes and dreams realized and see real-life role models of folks that look like them doing things that they love, having success,” Brabrand said. “Every teacher, no matter what your background, can do that. But I think we need to create a culture and a society where diversity is a strength.”
Data shows an increase in teacher diversity in Fairfax in recent years. In 2011-2012, 84.4 percent of teachers were white, compared with 81.5 percent in the past school year.
County School Board member Dalia Palchik, the board’s liaison to the Minority Student Achievement Oversight Committee, said in a statement that the ability to recruit and retain “quality teachers who understand our students” depends on the district’s ability to provide competitive salaries.
Starting salaries for teachers with bachelor’s degrees in Fairfax lag behind those of neighboring Arlington and Loudoun counties, according to 2016-2017 data compiled by the Virginia Department of Education.
Earlier this year, the school system slashed $50 million from its budget after it faced a revenue shortfall. In 2016, voters rejected a measure that would have imposed taxes on restaurant meals and prepared foods that was projected to give schools a $67 million annual boost to teachers’ pay.
“I hope our funding bodies also acknowledge the challenges we face and the fact that we need to fully fund our teacher salary scale to continue to be competitive,” Palchik said.
Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.