‘Not the only one’: Colorado teachers of color push for diversifying educator ranks

At the start of one semester, Leilani Gomez, a high school senior in Aurora, was shocked when her white teacher introduced herself.

“She told us we had to respect her, because we were receiving an opportunity to learn from her, and said a lot of students ‘like us’ don’t have that opportunity,” Gomez recalled. “I think she made it obvious that she thought she was better than us.”

Students stopped listening to her. Many didn’t show up to class. Students complained to school leadership, and eventually the teacher was gone.

Instead, Gomez said, she wishes she would have had more opportunities to learn from teachers of color. In four years of high school, she recalls having just two teachers of color.

“It was cool,” Gomez said. “It kind of felt like we had a space to talk to each other about anything. She was willing to be like ‘oh I know what you mean.’ It was almost a sense of comfort.”

Experiences like that are one reason educators of color in some of Colorado’s largest districts have called on officials to do more to diversify school staff.

But Colorado’s teachers largely don’t look like the students they serve and the gap has mostly stayed the same for five years. District policies don’t easily translate to practice in part because hiring decisions are left up to principals, and educators of color have higher attrition rates.

Research has shown that students of color can benefit from having teachers of color.

Students of color describe white teachers who didn’t push them. Others had teachers who criticized their ideas, not their work. And students say they relate to their lessons differently when they have a teacher of color. Diversifying school staff also exposes all students to broader perspectives.

Educators say that increasing diversity will also help engage more students, which can ultimately help improve learning, achievement, and other outcomes.

Teachers say the culture of schools — including how staff are trained to be culturally responsive and how curriculum is chosen or delivered — has a lot to do with whether diverse educators stay in the long run.

In Denver, Jeffco, and Aurora, educators who felt isolated and unsupported by their district have found a place to connect through their unions.

A group of teachers in Denver, the largest district in the state, is pushing the district to do more to address systemic racism, including by hiring more teachers of color. The district is trying to respond.

Recently, union leaders in Jeffco, a geographically large district that encompasses both wealthy mountain suburbs as well as low-income neighborhoods bordering Denver, criticized the district, pointing out that the number of educators of color has stayed flat. District officials there say they have been stepping up efforts in the last year.

In Aurora, an urban district that serves one of the most diverse student populations in the state including several immigrant and refugee communities, the school board approved a resolution in February, but teachers want more action.

“Thank you to the board for even coming up with the resolution,” said Beverly Cosey, an Aurora educator. But, she added, “we have to have a better plan.”

Cielo Valdez Xolot, a freshman high school student in Aurora, said she only recently learned, from a teacher of color, a more complete account of the things Christopher Columbus did besides landing in North America, such as his treatment of natives.

“I feel that’s disappointing,” Valdez Xolot said. “I’ve been living my life thinking he was a very good person.”

🔗Similar approaches

Educator diversity is an issue state lawmakers also wanted to tackle this year. A bill making its way through the legislature would create a group to study the obstacles that teachers of color face to entering or staying in the profession.

Pamelagrace Okeke, a social worker in Jeffco, who said she’s always the only black educator in the schools where she works, said it’s difficult to be the only different voice.

“I feel very isolated here,” Okeke said. “The only reason I’m still here is for the kids.”

But it’s also the hope she said she has received from working with the union for change.

Some of the work districts do to recruit and retain teachers of color is similar across the five largest districts in Colorado. That includes going out of state to job fairs at universities with education programs, including those that are historically black colleges or universities or Hispanic serving institutions, and expanding student teaching opportunities or grow-your-own programs such as those that help paraprofessionals earn a teaching license.

David Bell, Jeffco’s chief human resources officer, said that his district office is stepping up its efforts, in part because principals have been requesting a more diverse candidate pool.

Jeffco took some of its educators of color to hiring fairs just last year, and is creating partnerships with university programs. While it’s a common practice, it’s new for Jeffco which previously had limited visits, and mostly phone calls, Bell said.

“It’s really kind of a long game,” Bell said.

One unique thing Jeffco cited is that Bell’s team is also helping principals better describe their schools on job listings so that candidates know more about the schools they apply to.

The Jeffco teachers union set a goal to increase diversity three years ago. Union President John Ford said the gap between the percentage of students and the percentage of educators of color is “glaring.” He said the association recognized that in order to improve educational outcomes for all students, teachers and other school staff needed to be more diverse.

The union brought together educators of color to identify the problems and possible solutions and started discussions with the district last year.

“Over the course of that year nothing really changed,” Ford said. “So this year we’ve pushed the district harder than we ever have to recognize the problem and start to address it.”

That doesn’t mean he blames the district, Ford said. That’s why the union is also working on figuring out how to help.

“We need to give people of color a space to be leaders and to promote public education,” Ford said. “Historically I don’t know if we’ve done that. That’s kind of the biggest thing we’re working toward right now. We’re creating a space for conversations to happen through our association.”

The union created a scholarship this year for a Jeffco student interested in teaching. The scholarship will be named after Shermita West, a former Jeffco teacher who became the first African American president of the Jeffco teachers union in the ’90s.

🔗Denver efforts

In Denver Public Schools, “one of the things that we all know is what gets measured gets done,” June Taylor, chief human resources officer, told the school board recently.

She said that she appreciates district leaders making internal recruitment and retention goals public this year. “It’s really important to the work that we’re doing.”

Denver’s efforts to retain educators of color include the creation of nine groups, including groups focused on black employees, Hispanic employees, and LGBTQ employees. The district also has a teacher-to-teacher mentoring program called “Reach One” that pairs veteran teachers of color with newer teachers of color.

“We know it’s not just enough to recruit educators of color, but we have to be intentional about giving them a place where they know that they belong,” said Danielle Harris, Denver’s senior manager of equity initiatives.

Claudia Oltalvaro is a fourth-grade teacher in the program. It’s her second year teaching in Denver.

“New beginnings are not easy,” Oltalvaro told the school board. “In my case, I have to adapt to a new city, to a new school system, to a new curriculum. … It was so nice to know that I wasn’t alone. I have a great mentor.”

Denver Principal David Adams has gone on out-of-state recruiting trips and recently hosted paraprofessionals and others considering teaching careers at his school during the district’s “Success by Design” event. He urged district leaders to move beyond the mindset that schools need teachers of color because they serve students of color.

“We need teachers of color for all of our kids,” he said.

He told a story about one of his first students, who was white and from an upper-middle-class family.

“This young man said to his mother, ‘Mr. Adams is not like the other black people we see on TV,'” Adams said. “I was able to debunk what he saw in media and how media portray African Americans. That’s why this is so powerful.”

🔗Resolution in Aurora

In Aurora, teacher Carlos Valdez has been speaking to the school board since December when he heard that it was planning a resolution to require the district to do more to hire and retain teachers like him.

Valdez, who grew up in Aurora, said that his first teaching job was at an Aurora middle school where he was the only teacher of color.

“It was very depressing at times,” he said. “My experience didn’t really resonate with a lot of teachers. I felt more and more like an “other.””

After two years he switched jobs. Now, as a high school history teacher, he said that what has kept him in the district is having the teaching freedom to weave multiple cultures and perspectives into his curriculum.

So when he heard that one of the district’s newest school board members suggested a resolution requiring the district to step up its efforts, he was nervously excited. The board debated the resolution for months and eventually approved a simplified draft that asks the district to prioritize the development of teachers of color with differentiated professional development.

Jessica Spizzandre, an elementary teacher in Aurora, said she’s glad the language was simplified, so that officials can listen to the educators of color in the district first, before prescribing a solution.

“There’s a lot to it,” Spizzandre said.

Valdez also told the school board that a “white supremacy culture” lurks in the district that needs to be called out and addressed. As an example, he said, a teacher in his school has used a derogatory term about a student and continues to work.

“I cannot imagine increasing test scores in my building when we have stuff like that happening,” Valdez said. “So we need a plan. And I would love to have teachers be a part of shaping that plan.”

Robert Maxson, Aurora’s coordinator of talent acquisition and retention, said that in an effort to improve hiring and retention, Aurora conducts focus groups with its educators of color and exit surveys with those who choose to leave.

🔗Attraction of diversity

In asking current educators what they like about working in the district, Maxson said a common answer is the diversity that exists in the community.

Another priority the Aurora district has had is to increase principal diversity in schools. Many surveys and studies show that school leadership is a big factor in retention of all teachers.

“We are committed to meeting the needs of our diverse workforce,” Maxson said.

Gomez, the Aurora high school student, said she is planning to go to college to study music education. One day, she wants to be able to return to a diverse community like Aurora’s to teach students of color.

But, she knows she faces challenges, and she worries that she’ll end up being the only teacher of color at a school.

“I’m very scared of that,” she said. “A lot of the times when we talk to a teacher of color they’re the only ones who know where we’re coming from.”

Gomez said she has seen how those teachers get treated when they try to elevate their students’ concerns.

“They kind of treat them as though they are a student too and don’t know what they’re talking about,” Gomez said. “I’m going to try to make it work, but I do worry they’re going to doubt me just because they are not used to seeing people like me doing the job.”

Chalkbeat reporter Melanie Asmar contributed to this report.