Staff diversity in schools can help students of color

Staff diversity in schools can help students of color

By EMMA RESTREPO |
PUBLISHED: February 16, 2022 at 5:47 a.m. | UPDATED: February 18, 2022 at 9:14 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the third of four articles written by Emma Restrepo, reporter for the disParities Media Project of Children First.

NORRISTOWN — Christopher Jaramillo, 28, is the newest member of the Norristown School Board. He likens the position to having a full-time job, though it is voluntary.

The full-time job for which he gets paid is with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A Bronx native, Jaramillo moved with his family to Plymouth Meeting when he was a child. He recalled his time as a student in the Colonial School District with mixed feelings.

“I would describe it as very privileged,” he said. “It’s a predominantly white school district. (I was) one of 10 individuals who identified as Latinx, (and) many of them were in a separate building because they were in the ESL (English as a Second Language) area.”

Christopher Jaramillo is a member of the Norristown School Board.(Emma Restrepo — For MediaNews Group)

Though he was a native English speaker, Jaramillo still felt isolated. “(I was) not able to relate to many people. Teachers in the school district did not have the same cultural experiences or background,” he said. “It was very white-washed.”

Disliking school, Jaramillo was viewed, in his words, as “problematic and not willing to conform.” He was transferred to an alternative school but returned to complete his final two years of high school at Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School.

“I figured out how to keep my head down and not really stand out like I used to,” he said.

His experience is not unique for non-white students in Pennsylvania public schools.

A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education found improving teacher diversity can help all students, not just those like Jaramillo. Teachers of color, the report said, can be positive role models, breaking down stereotypes and preparing students to live and work in multiracial communities.

The same report found that “compared with their peers, teachers of color are more likely to have higher expectations of students of color, confront issues of racism, serve as advocates and cultural brokers, and develop more trusting relationships with students.”

Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, found that the gap between Pennsylvania’s students of color and teachers of color remains among the biggest in the country. It found that 55 percent of Pennsylvania’s public schools and 38 percent of all school districts employed only white teachers in the 2016-17 school year. They also found that only 5.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are persons of color.

Jaramillo’s mother and grandmother, who worked in sugar cane fields in Puerto Rico, pushed him to attend college.

“It wasn’t until college that I began liking education,” Jaramillo recalled. He first attended Montgomery County Community College, before transferring to West Chester University. He then went on to receive his Master of Science in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

Angelique Hinton, the president of the Norristown branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, can relate to Jaramillo’s experiences. As a child, she was exposed to traumas, including housing instability and abuse, that had an impact on her education.

Angelique Hinton is president of the Norristown branch of the NAACP.(Emma Restrepo — For MediaNews Group)

“We were evicted many times,” she said. “My father was struggling with addiction, and he was abusive to my mother. Then, you go to school and you act out a little bit, and the teacher considers you to be a behavioral problem, as opposed to having the background and the experience to understand.”

An 8th grade teacher in Norristown suspended Hinton for the rest of a semester, without, Hinton said, ever asking her why she was acting out.

“Some students are in survival mode,” she explained. “But some teachers do not realize it.”

Like Jaramillo’s matriarchs, Hinton was also determined to provide a better education for her family. She can recall her son coming home from school in Norristown without homework because his school lacked books.

In 2009, she decided to move her family from Norristown to Douglasville in Berks County, a more affluent zip code, because she wanted a better-resourced school for her son, who was in middle school at the time. Today, however, she somewhat regrets the decision. “The more resourced districts are predominantly white. And so, when you move into those districts, what ends up happening for the students is they get exposed to racism.”

Norristown Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer.(Photo by Emma Restrepo)

Some local school districts agree with Jaramillo, Hinton, and the researchers, and are working hard to diversify their teaching corps and administrative staff.

Norristown Schools Superintendent Christopher Dormer said that his district has established a diversity hiring goal as part of a Diversity and Cultural Proficiency Five Year Plan. Norristown wants to increase the number of non-white professionals by six each year.

“We have gone from 25 percent non-white administrators to 46 percent,” Dormer said.

Stephen Rodriguez

Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez said minority employees make up 12 percent of the staff. He cited some challenges to increasing that number rapidly.

While the district has a multi-pronged approach in recruiting and hiring minority candidates, he said that “such a small pool of certificated individuals of minority descent are coming out of our colleges that there simply are few or no candidates to choose from.”

Dormer agreed, adding that “90 percent of the people that enter and are in teacher prep-programs are white females, and 5 percent are white males. So that leaves everybody in the commonwealth trying to attract (diverse candidates) from just 5 percent available.”

One possible solution? Recruit former students who attended these districts, said Thaddaeus Peay, a Norristown School District alumnus.

Peay, who currently studies at Cabrini University, hopes to one day teach African American history at Norristown.

“I had a lot of teachers who genuinely cared about me,” he said. “So that is part of the reason why I wanted to come back and be a teacher in Norristown.”

Jaramillo hopes to do his part to address the problem through his work on the school board. Such service, he says, “is valuable, necessary and rewarding at the same time.”

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