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Minority teachers: Why can't local schools attract them?

August 27, 1999

As of August 20, the Washington County school system had hired 134 new teachers for the upcoming new year. The new hires will come from all over the U.S., with varying levels of experience and educational backgrounds. The one thing this group doesn't include, however, is any member of a racial minority.

Why should anyone care about that? For two reasons. The first is that two years ago a curriculum audit of the school system said that too many African-American students were being placed in special education classes and too few in gifted and talented courses.

When such students look for mentors and see that the system includes no one like them, they may decide that higher education and teaching careers are not meant for people of color.

The second reason, for those white folks who have children in the school system, is that the odds are that at some point in your child's life, he or she will have a black supervisor or be a member of some workplace team with people of color. Learning how to work with people of different races and cultures now will help your child later.

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So if having minority faculty members is a such a good thing, why hasn't the system done more to accomplish that? In talking with school system personnel people in the region, part of the problem is not that minority teachers haven't been recruited, but that they're not eager to come to an area where those of their race are a small percentage of the population. They're not eager, as one administrator told me, to be "an oddity" in the community.

Those systems is the region which are having more success are the ones which are aggressive and which can show the potential recruit that if they sign on, there will be a support system for them, both in the school system and the community.

The lack of a community that minority teachers would find inviting is something Donna Newcomer-Coble knows all too well.

"We don't seem to have a culture here that is encouraging to minority applicants," Newcomer-Coble said. As a result, the system has changed how its attempts to recruit minority applicants.

Instead of recruiting only at traditionally black colleges, Newcomer-Coble said the system is targeting minority students at colleges with mixed enrollments, students who presumably are already comfortable in a mixed-race environment.

Existing minority faculty members are asked to participate in recruiting trips, she said, and the system advertises is journals like Black Collegian.

Asked if the system has considered signing bonuses for minority teachers, Newcomer-Coble said it's been discussed, but for now the system is working on trying to increase all starting teachers' salaries.

In Carroll County, with a minority population of just 3 percent, Human Resources William Rooney faces many of the same problems as Washington County. He feels fortunate he was able to get four minorities in his pool of 145 new teachers.

The system did it, Rooney said, in part by hiring MPI, a husband and wife consulting team who did everything from contacting prospects in colleges to working with the community to develop a "support structure" for any minorities who were hired.

But the best strategy may be to "grow your own," Rooney said, by encouraging local minority students to become educators.

In Frederick County, where 18 of the 260 new teachers hired this year were minorities, Paula Lawton, the personnel administrator, said the secret to the system's growing success has been a combination of aggressive pursuit and help from the community.

When they meet a likely candidate at a job fair or elsewhere, Lawton said that within the week, they send a card that says, "It was nice to meet you."

After that, they follow up with phone calls and what Lawton calls "my biggest friend this year," e-mailed messages. Two of the 18 minorities that were hired came on board after a prolonged e-mail correspondence, she said.

The system's other big plus is Joyce Harris, an African-American personnel officer who aggressively pursues candidates, letting them know what the system offers in terms of staff development and what the community offers in terms of support.

The community has helped, Lawton said. The Negro Business and Professional Woman's Club of Frederick and Mountain City Elks Lodge No. 382 worked together to produce a pamphlet that lists Frederick County's black-owned business and other resources, like churches.

Lawton says she's happy with the progress so far, but not satisfied. To improve even further, Lawton said Harris has been assigned to write a minority-recruitment plan, which she'll then get the responsibility to implement.

Changing Washington County's culture to make it more inviting to minorities will take time, but encouraging local minority students (perhaps with scholarships) to major in education with a view toward teaching locally shouldn't be impossible.

And according to Sandy Shepherd, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education, it might be possible to write new guidelines so that so of the millions that State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick has requested for signing bonuses, stipends and mentoring programs could be used as special incentives to recruit minority teachers.




Bob Maginnis is Opinion Page editor of the the Herald-Mail newspapers.

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