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The First Step to Hiring a Diverse School Staff: Believing It’s Possible

Clint Mitchell arrived in the United States from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia at 14 years old, on Nov. 12, 1989. Most of his peers at the New York City school he attended were students of color—but he only had one Black teacher. The rest were white.

More than three decades later, he became superintendent of the Colonial Beach district in rural Virginia, where nearly 40 percent of students are Black. But when he stood before his elementary school staff to introduce himself, he realized there wasn’t a single Black educator in the crowd.

Now Mitchell is trying to make sure students in his district regularly encounter Black and brown teachers—“because I didn’t have that opportunity,” he shared during a virtual panel discussion at Education Week’s K-12 Essentials Forum on March 14.

The benefits of racially diverse school staff have been widely documented in academic literature. Students benefit from having role models at school who look like them and share their backgrounds, said Mitchell, whose district has in recent years added several Black educators, with more in the pipeline to come.

Sharif El-Mekki, founder and chief executive officer of the Center for Black Educator Development, argued during the panel that increasing the number of educators of color in classrooms benefits not only students of color, but even white teachers.

“They’re becoming more well-informed about their students on things that they can’t just get from being in a book club,” like how to communicate with families from different backgrounds, El-Mekki said.

More than 3 in 5 district leaders and principals who answered an EdWeek Research Center survey last fall said finding racially diverse candidates for open positions was “very difficult” or “impossible.” With that in mind, here are three tips Mitchell and El-Mekki shared for successfully achieving this goal.

Make it a priority

One of the foundational steps necessary to assembling a diverse staff, according to Mitchell, is believing you can do so by actually trying.

“We get rooted in this idea of, ‘I’m a big school district. I don’t need to go and find people. They’re going to come to me,’” Mitchell said. “But the reality is that’s not going to happen.”

Instead, Mitchell advises district leaders to visit local higher education institutions, businesses, churches, and other public gathering places to develop relationships and make connections. He also makes a point of attending his district’s job fairs, in hopes that candidates of color will be encouraged to see a Black man leading the district.

These efforts alone may make a big difference in some districts, and district leaders aren’t even aware of these options: El-Mekki said he’s talked to school and district leaders who don’t even know about the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) closest to them.

Think of improving staff diversity as a constant effort

Mitchell said recruitment should be a year-round activity, whether the district has current openings or not.

Forming pipelines from local colleges and universities to school district positions can take years. Mitchell has worked with his school board to help create programs that provide incentives for educators to gain the certifications they need to remain in the profession once they’ve entered it.

The effects of these efforts compound over time. One special education assistant in the district had told Mitchell she was planning to shift to another district with more staff members “who looked like me,” he said. But as the district’s staff diversity improved, she ended up staying.

El-Mekki wasn’t surprised to hear this story. “The more anti-racist your school or district is, the more likely diverse educators will want to not only come, but find the respect and professional fulfillment to stay,” he said.

Persuade skeptics by showing your progress

Some school and district leaders might be wary of their prospects for recruiting educators of color, or skeptical that the efforts are worth their time.

The best way to change people’s minds, Mitchell said, is to demonstrate success they can’t argue with. And the best way to understand why diverse staffing is necessary is to see the effects in practice.

When state education officials visited his district recently, Mitchell made a point to take them to the classrooms of several educators of color who are pursuing innovative strategies for teaching reading.

“You’ve gotta bring people in, and let them make the decision for themselves,” Mitchell said.

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