Jeffco Schools is hiring but diversity lags

Despite teachers’ call for more representation, change remains elusive

Bob Wooley
bwooley@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 8/3/21

Despite months of calls by educators and promises of diversifying hiring, the Jeffco Public Schools district is not able to show an improvement in the number of African American educators at the …

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Jeffco Schools is hiring but diversity lags

Despite teachers’ call for more representation, change remains elusive

Posted

Despite months of calls by educators and promises of diversifying hiring, the Jeffco Public Schools district is not able to show an improvement in the number of African American educators at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

Toward the end of the 2020-21 school year, rallies were held, drawing more attention to the issue. And on several occasions during Board of Education (BOE) meetings, callers made impassioned cases for the District to take action to recruit more BIPOC (Black, Indigeous, People of Color) but particularly, Black educators. 

Those rallies and calls to the board were happening right around the time new Jeffco Schools Superintendent, Tracy Dorland, was hired. In fact, during her first week on the job, Dorland said there were important discussions that needed to be had around equity in the District.

At that time, there were six African American teachers in the district — a district comprised of 166 public schools and more than 80,000 students, according to members of JCEA’s (Jefferson County Education Association) EMOAT (Ethnic and Minority Outreach Action Team) Team.

Cameron Bell, Jeffco’s Executive Director, Media Relations, said there are actually 11 African American educators ( a term that encompasses teachers, counselors and learning specialists) in the District. The Colorado Department of Education website says around 1% of Jeffco’s students are Black.

Pamelagrace Okeke, an EMOAT member and Social Emotional Learning Specialist in the district has spoken at length about inequity in Jeffco Schools.

Okeke has been pushing not only for more diversity among staff, but for more equity in the way current BIPOC staff and students are treated. In her opinion, regardless of semantics — teacher, educator, learning specialist — the number of Black educators is too low. 

Last March, while presenting to the BOE, Okeke said she started off hopeful when she entered Jeffco, but during her eight years at the District, she’s seen little to no improvement in racial/ethnic equity among educators.

Jeffco did not provide teacher diversity numbers for the upcoming school year and did not indicate a change in the number of African American educators for 2021-22.

Asked for official comments or an interview with the District, Bell said Human Resources and Recruiting officials were too busy to speak with the newspaper but did agree to get answers to specific written questions on their behalf. 

Regarding current measures being taken to diversify ranks, the District’s answer centered on the an attempt to build an infrastructure around recruiting of minority candidates.

“The District continues to make connections to educator preparation programs in colleges and universities that support the development of educators of color, specifically through college/university enrollment,” it read. “We engage and support through career development seminars, resume writing and interview skill seminars, and other engagement opportunities.”

The written answers Bell provided said the Jeffco Schools district is committed to equity work as a professional obligation to partner with university programs in the preparation of aspiring teachers.

“This intentional work continues to expand and evolve as relationships and partnerships are developed with traditional teacher preparation programs, Hispanic Serving Institutions, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Native American Serving Nontribal Institutions, and through promising efforts to grow our own educators from our current and future support staff and school-based teacher cadet programs,” the District’s written answer said.

Addressing the “grow your own” idea back in March, Okeke said the current system doesn’t bode well for that path to pay dividends.

“Can we be honest that even within our student population, as we look at the disproportionate data of discipline with our Black and Brown students — Black and Brown boys. If we’re trying to grow our own in a system that continues to marginalize them, we’re not going to have the folks that we need to turn them into teachers,” Okeke said. “If we want to affect change within our district, it starts with our students. It really starts with our staff because they’re the ones that are treating our students in such a way that either elevates them or marginalizes them.”

When asked specifically what the school district has done this summer to grow the number of Black or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) educators for the upcoming school year, the district communications department describes efforts to create opportunities for diverse candidate pools, but gave a more detailed account of efforts taken over the past year-and-a-half.

“We have recruited for this school year in 33 states, establishing inroads to 45 universities and colleges, a third of which are Hispanic Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities,” they wrote.

As for union attempts to push for more recruitment and retention of educators of color, the District’s response was that although there have been engagement sessions to discuss the issues, no specific district-wide plans have been made in this arena.

Finally, regarding the District’s perspective on the importance of diversity and increased equity in representation, the answer provided was that the District was focused on providing a well-rounded educational experience for students.

“(The District) values having educators and other staff available to support students of color, having educators and support staff of color in our schools regardless of their school demographics, and having our educators bring a level of cultural awareness and sensitivity to the student experience and into our work environments,” they wrote. 

And yet, even after months of emphasis on recruiting and retention of Black teachers and educators, the district seems poised to not have more African American teachers in the coming year.

According to Okeke, at least one Black educator in the district is considering leaving and another, Jefferson High School Social Worker Robert Hawkins, died suddenly in February.

Hawkins was also a JCEA board member and chair of the EMOAT Team. Okeke said increasing diversity and equity in Jeffco Public Schools was a mission Hawkins believed in deeply.

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