Newton district's staff not reflective of growing student diversity
Victoria Adamé, currently a principal at a private school after serving 15 years in that capacity for Newton USD 373, can remember one of the days that convinced her to become an educator and bring about some change.
She was a student in Newton schools in the 1960s. She was concerned about a grade she had received — specifically a C — and went to talk with her teacher about it.
“She explained to me that a C was fine,” Adamé said. “It was a fine grade. She explained that ‘You are going to grow up and you are going to clean houses, that is what Mexican women of this town do.’”
It was the reflection of a white teacher, who saw the world through white eyes.
Adamé talks about that moment today when asked about having teachers and principals who reflect the diverse student population in schools. She is unassuming and doesn’t throw out accusations. But she will point out that there are not many nonwhite teachers in Newton schools (currently, less than 3 percent) and that there are few building principals who are nonwhite as well (two out of 15, currently).
And this, she says, is nothing new. It was not much different when she graduated from Newton High School in 1971.
“The closest I got to diversity as a student was one black teacher,” Adamé said.
It is not clear if Brandon Cheeks is the first African-American building administrator in the Newton school district, but it is known that when he was hired in 2018 he was the first in several decades.
“To the best of my knowledge he is the first African-American principal in our district,” said superintendent Deb Hamm.
Hamm’s history in the district, as an administrator, teacher and resident goes back more than 30 years.
Therein lies a struggle for the school system — teaching staff and building administration staff that does not reflect the makeup of the student body.
According to demographics from the Kansas Department of Education, in the 1998-1999 school year, Newton USD 373 was about 81 percent white and 19 percent minority. In 2018-2019, it sits at about 62 percent white and 38 percent minority.
However, teaching and building administration staff within the district to not mirror those breakdowns. According to statistics compiled by USD 373, in 2019, building administrators are 86.6 percent white, teachers are 97 percent white.
Being part of a minority is not easy — and the difficulties come from both within and outside the walls of the schools.
“It wasn’t always easy to win over staff. It was hard to have people accept me in that role (principal),” Adamé said. “… It is not something the community is looking for. I did have experiences of parents not wanting to deal with their kids. People were up front about it.”
This was the topic of discussion of a recent meeting of the Newton Community for Racial Justice, which hosted Hamm and several teachers who are spearheading efforts to look at diversity issues in the school system.
The percentages, however, do not tell the real story. There are 15 building administrators, and only one of those is African-American. Only one is Hispanic. Out of more than 300 teachers reported, only three are African-American and two are Hispanic.
“We have given it some thought, more recently in the past couple of years and most recently in the last year to see if there are things that we can do impact this,” Hamm said. “There are a number of factors that lead into this. One is how many students of color actually choose education as a career goal. When you look at the numbers at the University level, there are few people of color that actually enter education and that impacts who ultimately works in schools”
She is not wrong in her assertion.
According to a study by the National Educators Association, expanded career options for minorities, resulting from civil rights gains, also have reduced teacher diversity. After World War II 79 percent of African-American female college graduates worked as teachers; however, by the mid-1980s, that figure had fallen to 23 percent. Between 1975 and 1982, the number of bachelor’s degrees in education awarded to minorities decreased by 50 percent, nearly twice the rate of decline for whites, while the number of bachelor’s degrees in business and other fields of study awarded to students of color increased.
And, there is always the underlying issue of race.
“There are many views about this. There are people who still believe that people of ethnicity should not have opportunities,” Adamé said.
Nationally teachers of color made up 9 percent of the teaching force in 1986. By 2011, the proportion had increased to 16 percent. According to the NEA, the increase was driven by a growth in the percentage of Latino teachers, growing from 2 percent of all teachers in 1986 to 6 percent in 2011. Teachers characterized racially as “other” also increased, from less than 1 percent in 1986 to 4 percent in 2011. African-American teachers remained at between 6 and 7 percent of public school teachers over the same time period.
“The question becomes how do we get persons of color to be even interested in applying for our district?” Hamm said. “We are looking at some different things like language on our job descriptions to indicate that we are interested in diversity and having a diverse workforce. We have not hit upon anything yet that we have any evidence that works, or does not work, for hiring persons of color.”
That is a big problem. Sheryl Wilson, director of Kansas Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at Bethel College, and a member of the Newton Community for Racial Justice group is one of very few minorities working at the college.
She believes that making the invitation — the job offer — in and of itself is simply not enough. And using buzzwords like “diversity” in advertising is a sure way to turn off potential applicants.
“For many people many people of color, when they take roles, go to schools, go to institutions that are all white, the benefits have to outweigh the deficits,” Wilson said. “When the deficits outweigh the benefits, that is when people begin looking at their exit strategies. Sometimes it has to do with concern around making a shift in recruiting practices to bring in more people of color …. If this is not something that is on everyone’s watch, shame on them. This can’t be a box you check on your list of things and say ‘we have two or three people here who are diverse. That is not diversity.”
As if there is a need to exacerbate the problem, a study by the UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program in 2016 found that the number of students who say they will major in education has reached its lowest point in 45 years — 4.2 percent said they intend to major in education, compared to 11 percent in 2000; 10 percent in 1990; and 11 percent in 1971.
“A lot of it comes down to salary,” said Angela Becker, board of education member for USD 373. “A lot of people do not see themselves in the teaching profession because they do not see themselves in a career where they can make a decent living.”
The racial makeup of teaching staff and administration has not, according to Becker, been discussed in her time on the board. She is among the newest board members for Newton USD 373, elected in 2017.
“The numbers are obviously not great, but I do not believe it is at all intentional,” Becker said.
She said it would be a good thing for districts to set a goal.
There is, however, a struggle in the hiring process. According to Hamm, the school district does not collect or ask for racial information from applicants — to avoid any possible Office for Civil Rights violations or complaints.
The district screens applications in search of possible interview candidates without ethnicity considered.
“We do not know the color of a person until they show up for an interview,” Hamm said.
Hamm said the last “few” hires of people of color have been applicants who grew up in the community and wanted to come back home after college — like Adamé.
“That is great, but we are not necessarily attracting people from communities to come to our community,” Hamm said. “We need to be more conscious of it, and more intentional about it, in our hiring to get people to come here.”
Coming to Newton
Cheeks took a different path. He grew up in Memphis, Tenn. Cheeks came to Newton after teaching seventh grade social studies in USD 305 Salina. This is his first administrative role.
Building relationships has been central to Cheeks’ approach to education since he started teaching 13 years ago — and that is not always limited to the classroom. In Salina, Cheeks eventually took on roles as a department leader while also serving on the board of directors for the Greater Salina Community Foundation and working as a youth pastor at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church.
He was attracted to the Newton position, in part, because of a redesign project going on in the school — part of a state initiative to change how schools operate and how students are taught.
“All those pieces that are a part of our redesign, I think it fits right along with my own personal philosophy of education. The biggest piece for me is building those relationships with the kids because I think if each student can have a relationship with someone, then hopefully that will help the whole education process for them,” Cheeks said. “I feel that each child should have a positive relationship with some adult in the building, and I feel within that positive relationship we can encourage, we can empower the young people to do great things not only in this school, but in this world.”
That resonates with Wilson — who said that there must be a reward in taking the job.
“When a person of color decides to work in an all white community, they count that cost. The take it very seriously what they are walking into,” Wilson said. “There are no illusions of how difficult that might be. For some of us, it means advancement in our careers. This is different from every place I have ever lived. I would not say it is better, but there is something to be gained.
"For me, it had everything to do with the job I had to come to, and being able to do some things innovation-wise and things I would not be able to do elsewhere.”
Her father was the first African-American firefighter in the city she grew up in. Being the first is part of her family DNA.
Becker said she believes that attracting teachers of any ethnicity to the district starts with the current student body.
“You can not be what you can not see,” Becker said. “The kids that are in school who re people of color don’t see teachers who look like them and they might not ever think that (teaching) is a career path for them, which is not good because there is already a teacher shortage.”
Adamé said some districts have made a commitment to hiring a more diverse teaching force — that is what attracted her to one of her previous jobs.
And that having that diverse group as teachers and principals is good for education.
“Learning increases for children of diversity when they see teachers of diversity,” Adamé said. “Having those role models can make a difference.”
Cheeks has seen those positive impacts, too. While he admitted that as assistant principal at Santa Fe 5/6 Center he tries to be a role model for all his students, he knows something as simple as his presence can have a bigger influence among kids with a similar ethnic background.
"I'm gonna help any kid who comes across my path if I can help them, but I do feel that with some students if you look like them, then they have hope. You give them hope that: 'Oh man, I can be successful. I can do some positive things in my life just because I see someone who looks like me,’” Cheeks said. "I do feel that sometimes it's very needed."
Not having teachers and principals that “look like our students” leads to other issues as well.
According to civil rights data collection at ed.gov, minority students are more likely to draw an expulsion from school. In 2015, the most recent data set available, while minority students made up 46.6 percent of the enrollment, they accounted for 66 percent of expulsions. Minorities made up 44.9 percent of in-school suspensions and 42.6 percent of out-of-school suspensions.
“There can be a lot of reasons that happens, including staff makeup. Not being culturally or ethnically educated,” Hamm said. “The idea, for instance, that all families are like my family .....we expect all kids to act a certain way, and when they do not, it results in action. That is an issue nationally. The understanding of cultural makeup and ethnic makeup of your community is really important. It is a goal for every governmental organization is to represent the public.”
Misunderstanding of cultural backgrounds (like the use of a certain phrase) can play into those disciplinary problems, according to Cheeks, which is why having school leaders that mirror students’ own cultural make-up can be key.
Having been in similar positions before, Cheeks can relate to students in those cases and try to address the situation without any disciplinary action being taken. Cheeks — who admitted one negative experience in school could have put him on a different path — knows the ramifications such actions can have.
Hamm said there are broader issues than the racial statistics within schools will show.
For example, it has been more than a decade since there has been a minority sitting on the board of education. It has been even longer for the city or county commissions. It has also been that long since there have been minority candidates on the ballot to vote for.
“How do we reach out and encourage that leadership to come? Through policy and direction, you can bring forward issues. We have noted for a while that we are not seeing applicants,” Hamm said. “I see this as a bigger issue than just a school issue.”