The demographic gap in Central Oregon schools

Finding teachers who mirror their students

By Tyler Leeds / The Bulletin

The diversity of students in the Jefferson County School District — where the population is almost neatly one-third American Indian, one-third Hispanic and one-third white — is nearly entirely absent from the staff.

As with every other Central Oregon school district, the teacher workforce in Jefferson County is more than 90 percent white. According to academics, state education leaders and superintendents, this gap matters.

“Really, the applicants just aren’t there,” said Jefferson County Superintendent Rick Molitor. “We want our staff and teachers to be in line with the demographics of our students, and it’s something we’re striving for, but we don’t have the applicants.”

To help increase diversity in the Central Oregon teacher workforce, the OSU-Cascades Master of Arts in Teaching program offered eight students from underrepresented populations $10,000 toward tuition for the 2014-2015 school year.

“Quite a bit of research shows student engagement, motivation and success is increased in student populations when they see role models in teaching positions who reflect or understand their background,” said Carolyn Platt, the university’s program lead for teacher education. “The classroom of today is not set up with 30 kids at the same level and with the same backgrounds — there’s often many different levels and cultural expectations, and a teacher who brings in a depth of understanding has a great advantage.”

Platt said OSU-Cascades offered scholarships not only to those from underrepresented ethnicities or races, but also to applicants from low-income backgrounds, who were first-generation college students or who had extensive experience working with the populations missing from the teacher workforce.

Deona Drazil, 35, one of the scholarship recipients, grew up on a farm in Malin and is the first in her family to complete college, let alone attend graduate school. Drazil works with a tribal population through the Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services, and she believes these experiences position her to better connect with students.

“It gives me a different perspective,” said Drazil, who wants to teach kindergarten or first grade. “I’ve seen a lot of things and a lot of kids who have gone through so much. I can have a lot of empathy for them. It helps me to relate and look for signs and tweak the material to make sure no kids get left behind, as they say.”

Echo DeMasters, 30, another scholarship recipient, cited her childhood growing up in a poor Madras family as something that will allow her to understand students facing the same challenges she encountered.

“I remember what it was like and the stigma that went with it,” she said. “It allows me to be more compassionate with them, and I think I can do better with their parents, too. I’m not sure if it’s a sense I developed or natural, but I interact well with them.”

School districts, including Jefferson County, as well as teacher education programs, teach current and prospective educators how to work with a diverse set of students. However, Markisha Smith, an education specialist with the Equity Unit of the Oregon Department of Education, emphasized that this training can’t stand in for a diverse staff.

“Teachers of color serve as role models for all students; no matter what background they have, they see this person breaking historical stereotypes,” Smith said. “There’s also research that shows teachers of color are in a unique position to teach students of color. Of course, not any one person can say their entire experience has been like someone else’s, but there seems be an undeniable connection when you have a student and teacher who look alike and share cultural and linguistic similarities.”

The demographic gap between students and teachers is an issue not only in Central Oregon. Statewide, more than one-third of students are minorities, compared with 8 percent of teachers. The state has set a goal of getting the teaching workforce up to 10 percent by 2015, but Smith echoed Molitor’s claim, saying, “It’s a challenge when we think about demographics.”

To change this, the state has launched an initiative to fund programs that create “minority educator pipelines” that encourage and support Oregon K-12 students from diverse backgrounds in pursuing teaching careers. In Central Oregon, efforts aimed at recruiting a future cohort of minority teachers is aided by a $500,000 TeachOregon grant, funded by ODE and the Portland-based Chalkboard Project, a philanthropy-backed education nonprofit.

But even when schools are able to recruit minority teachers, Smith said, such teachers can face additional challenges, making retention an issue.

“Teachers of color are often only one or two members of the staff, and having to navigate that and a staff that may not be very welcoming can be difficult,” Smith said.

Given these added hurdles, Smith said, having support systems in place for such teachers is essential.

“A lot of times, they may be placed in an environment where there are already some challenges in terms of what’s happening in the school,” Smith said. “The expectation is they can just put them in a room with kids of color and work some magic, but just like any new teacher, there needs to be a support system, a mentor, someone they can talk to without fear of having what they say come back at them.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2160, tleeds@bendbulletin.com