Bend-La Pine Schools staff members learned more about the inequities and challenges that minority students face after attending a training session with Oregon Center for Educational Equity.

“The goal is to help educators in Oregon, especially white educators, better understand the experiences of people of color and (learn) how our schools can intentionally and unintentionally continue to combat systemic effects of racism and oppression,” said Bend-La Pine School Board Vice Chair Carrie Douglass, who participated in the training last week.

For the 2016-17 school year, the Oregon Department of Education found that although nearly 80 percent of white seniors graduated in Bend-La Pine Schools, four-year graduation rates were only 50 percent for black students, 61.2 percent for Hispanic/Latino students, 54.5 percent for Native American students and 77.4 percent for multiracial students. The small sample of Asian students had a 100 percent four-year graduation rate.

Furthermore, although white and multiracial students in Bend-La Pine had slightly higher four-year graduation rates than in the rest of Oregon, most minority students performed worse in the district compared to the state average.

According to Assistant Superintendent Lora Nordquist, about 80 or 90 employees of the Bend-La Pine district attended the voluntary session, and they participated in activities revolving around racism, inequity and Oregon’s racial history. According to The Washington Post, when Oregon became a state in 1859, its original constitution did not allow people of color to live inside its borders. This provision wasn’t removed until 1922. Douglass said she knew Oregon “had a pretty dark past when it comes to racism,” but she didn’t know the extent.

Diversity in hiring

One aspect that Bend-La Pine needs to improve, Nordquist said, is having a staff that is more representative of its student population. She said about 10 to 15 percent of students in the district identified as Latino or Hispanic, and there are small populations of Asian, Native American and black students. Meanwhile, only about 4 or 5 percent of district staff were people of color, she said.

Oscar Gonzalez, empowerment programs manager for the Latino Community Association, has worked with schools in Houston and Eugene before coming to Bend. He said having teachers of color makes minority students’ education “relevant.”

“Becoming an educator … and (having students) seeing someone like themselves having achieved (success) is a powerful thing,” he said.

Nordquist said the district has “been actively working” on hiring more teachers of color in the past few years. District officials have sent a team to Portland job fairs, advertised on hiring websites for dual-language teachers and worked with Oregon State University-Cascades and George Fox University to have native Spanish speakers trying to earn teaching degrees student teach with the district.

“There’s no arguing that it helps students to see adults who look like them in leadership roles in education, whether it’s teachers or administrators,” Nordquist said.

Gonzalez said minority students in predominately white districts like Bend-La Pine have been harassed for their skin color or for speaking a different language, “particularly in this (political) climate,” and many schools’ curricula don’t encapsulate the experience of all students.

“When you don’t see yourself in the textbook, in the literature … (students ask) ‘Cesar Chavez was who?’” he said. “That’s another area we’re able to hopefully improve upon, so curriculum will be more inclusive of all folks, and give more of an honest story of what happened over the past 500 years.”

Nordquist agreed and said Bend-La Pine has been evaluating its classes and programs to make sure they “reflect all people in our society.” Also, in June, the district passed an equity policy that says Bend-La Pine will pursue “a commitment to ensure that all students receive what they need to succeed,” regardless of race, ethnicity or socio-economic status.

Pacific Crest Middle School Principal Chris Boyd said it’s also important for white teachers and administrators to stop using a “colorblind” approach when it comes to race.

“If I, as a white person, say that I don’t see color, and a student is expressing to me that they have been victimized or marginalized because of the color of their skin … I’m not acknowledging that the person’s race is contributing to that person’s marginalization,” he said.

Douglass said one lesson she learned from the seminar was to hold off on major changes.

“It was really important for us to start listening and understand the effects of white people, and not just take action,” she said. “Sometimes that can result in ‘solutions’ that are a bigger problem.”

Gonzalez said although Central Oregon schools are lagging behind the rest of the state in narrowing achievement gaps for minority students, he believes the region, particularly Bend-La Pine, is “moving in the right direction.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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