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Diversity forum: Minority educators tell it like it is

Educators Wayne White, left, Lillian Hsiao, Jemal Graham

Educators Wayne White, left, Lillian Hsiao, Jemal Graham and Dafny Joy Irizarry Ortiz take part in a panel discussion Friday during the Long Island Educator Diversity Convening conference at Hofstra University. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Minority schoolteachers and administrators, appearing at a Long Island education forum focused on diversity, described embarrassing racial assumptions they had encountered in the workplace, as well as more positive experiences with colleagues and students.

Speaker after speaker at Friday's four-hour conference talked of the frustrations of working in public schools where they are greatly outnumbered by white co-workers and often are treated differently in terms of expectations and work assignments. The personal recollections frequently were similar, whether speakers were of Asian, black or Latino race or ethnicity.

The forum, which attracted an audience of nearly 200 educators and others to Hofstra University, was aimed at encouraging school districts to recruit and employ more staffers of color. Many schools could find this an uphill task, judging from Friday's testimony.

The conference's organizers opened the session by noting that many speakers had worked for multiple school systems and were not necessarily referring to their current places of employment.

Dafny J. Irizarry Ortiz, a 25-year classroom veteran who teaches English as a New Language, said her fluency in Spanish was not always appreciated by fellow teachers. 

"I heard from other colleagues that the reason I got hired is that I speak Spanish, not because I'm an effective teacher," said Irizarry Ortiz, who currently works in Central Islip and serves as president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association. 

Lillian Hsiao, offering a flip-side experience, said she encountered colleagues who expressed amazement at her grasp of English. 

" 'Gee, you speak English so well, and without an accent,' " Hsiao said, relating one comment she had received. "And I said, 'Well, that's probably because I was born here.' As teachers of color, we have to stand up for ourselves."

Hsiao, who is of Chinese ancestry and grew up in New Jersey, taught business for two years in South Huntington schools and now teaches English as a New Language at Great Neck South High School.

Friday's event was sponsored by a coalition of education and civil rights groups: ERASE Racism, which has an office in Syosset; The Education Trust-New York, which is based in Manhattan; Hofstra's National Center for Suburban Studies; and the New York State Council of School Superintendents, based in Albany.    

One point underscored at the forum was that the Nassau-Suffolk region employs remarkably few minority teachers across its 124 public school systems — an entrenched reality that persists even as minority student populations have grown rapidly in recent years.

Recent research by Hofstra analysts, who also spoke at the conference, found that nonwhite students accounted for nearly 45 percent of the region's public school enrollment in 2017, with particular growth among Asians and Latinos. Even so, nonwhite teachers made up only 8 percent of the region's classroom workforce. 

"I can tell you we have a problem," said Roger Tilles of Great Neck, one of the introductory speakers, who represents the Island on the state's policymaking Board of Regents. 

Tilles noted that he had lived and worked in other states, including Michigan and Maryland, and had found the problem more deep-seated here. 

"I have never experienced the amount of segregation that we have in schools on Long Island," he said.

Frequently, black and Latino panelists at the conference recalled being assigned to deal with the problems of students and parents of the same race or ethnicity — or to serve as translators — even if they never had those students in their own classes. This, speakers said, meant extra work for which they were seldom compensated.

Provocative racial remarks from colleagues also are an issue, panelists said. 

Sean Douglas, a school social worker in Uniondale who also has served on the board of Valley Stream District 13 since 2010, recalled what happened when he began urging more minority hiring. 

"One board member said, 'We're not just going to lower our standards to hire people of color,' " Douglas recounted. "It was all I could do to avoid a fistfight." 

Some speakers also described more satisfying moments — for example, when they found minority students looking up to them as role models. Wayne White, a social studies teacher at Bellport High School, noticed that when he took over a college-level Advanced Placement class in American History. 

"One thing I've noticed in years of teaching AP is that the number of students of color increased," White said. "One reason was that they wanted to have their first black teacher." 

One conference sponsor, The Education Trust-NY, is distributing a booklet titled "The Educator Diversity Playbook," which offers guidance and tips to school districts on how to recruit and retain minority teachers and administrators. The nonprofit research and advocacy group concentrates on equity issues involving students of color and the economically disadvantaged.

The playbook encourages school boards to adopt resolutions specifically committing themselves to diversity in hiring. It urges boards to carry through on their commitment by setting detailed goals and timelines and by reviewing their progress periodically at public meetings.

Once committed to hiring teachers and administrators from different backgrounds, districts need to follow up by collecting data useful in determining if goals are being met, the playbook says. It recommends that systems keep careful records on candidates who apply for jobs, and on whether they were granted interviews, hired and successfully retained over multiple years.

Lorna Lewis, superintendent of Plainview-Old Bethpage schools and a conference participant, is cited in the playbook as someone who personally reviews resumes of every applicant for an administrative job. Lewis is black.

"I just went through 500 resumes because we have an assistant principal opening," Lewis is quoted as saying in the playbook. "It's important that I do that because there are clues on a resume that someone is a minority. I'll flag a resume and say, 'Must be interviewed.' I feel that it is my duty to have them get the experience."

Developing diversity in schools' workforce

The Education Trust-New York outlines five main steps in "The Educator Diversity Playbook" that school districts can take to increase the number of educators of color among administrators and teachers. The organization, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that focuses on equity, said the 32-page document is intended as a tool to help districts' leaders.

  • Encourage school boards to signal and embrace the importance of teacher and school leader diversity.
  • Collect and use data to examine school district recruitment, interview and hiring practices.
  • Question and change recruitment practices to identify additional qualified applicants of color.
  • Improve the working environment for educators of color.
  • Invest in mentorship and career ladders for current and aspiring teacher, school and district leaders.

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