Tough talk about teacher diversity in Tukwila School District

Students leave after school at Foster High School in the Tukwila School DIstrict. The district is one of the most diverse in the country. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
Students leave after school at Foster High School in the Tukwila School DIstrict. The district is one of the most diverse in the country. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

It seems that everyone agrees — administrators, critics and students alike — that the Tukwila School District needs to boost its teacher diversity.

However, the road to get there has not been straightforward, with a heated public confrontation at a school board meeting a few weeks ago.

Tukwila is failing the kids,” NAACP Seattle/King County education chairwoman Rita Green told The Seattle Globalist last week.

The local NAACP says the district is not doing enough to employ teachers of color and the teachers working there do not reflect the student body.

The district has been called one the most diverse in the nation — with 21.2 percent of students identifying as Black, 30.9 percent of Asian or Pacific Islander descent and 27 percent of Hispanic descent, according to the state’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. About 40 percent of the students are transitional bilingual. White students are a minority in Tukwila, at 13.8 percent.

However, the teaching staff in Tukwila is not as diverse, according to the state. In 2012-13, 25 percent of Tukwila teachers were of color. Of the 172 teachers in Tukwila classrooms that year, 43 of them identified as people of color and 129 of them identify as white.

While that number makes it the most diverse in Western Washington — the proportion of teachers of color throughout the state is about 9 percent — Green says that Tukwila’s demographics means the district lags in teacher diversity because it has further to go than other districts before it reflects its student population.

Not only does having diverse teachers give the students role models, but “having diversity allows white teachers to learn how to relate to their students,” Green said.

The Tukwila District Superintendent Nancy Coogan agrees, though she says that the district has been striving to increase the numbers of diverse candidates for teacher openings.

“I think they [the NAACP] have the same vision of doing this work and doing this work right,” Coogan said.

“I believe their passion is the right passion,” Coogan told the Globalist last week. “We are not where we need to be.”

Coogan says increasing diversity is a priority for her and the district’s diversity is one the reasons she wanted to head the district. Coogan last year wrote an article for TeachersofColor.com on why having a diverse group of teachers is important for all districts.

She says the district has worked with The Martinez Foundation, a Bellevue nonprofit that aims to boost the number of teachers of color, and Coogan says Tukwila aims to be first in line when newly minted teachers of color graduate from college.

Ian Adair, executive director of The Martinez Foundation, said the Tukwila School District has hired more teachers from the foundation’s program than any other district the foundation works with.

“Tukwila presently employees three Martinez Fellows in their schools. Two at the high school and one in middle school. They have hired an additional four Martinez Fellows for next year; one high school, one middle level and two elementary,” he said in an email.

Tukwila also has been working with the NAACP. But, the group says that despite working with Tukwila district officials since August, district officials did not do enough at a recent education job fair to expand the diversity of the pool of candidates.

Green said the NAACP representative who accompanied the Tukwila district officials was the one took the initiative to bring the resume of that candidate and other candidates of color to Tukwila’s hiring staff.

“With one resume, the guy had a graduate degree in aeronautical science,” Green said. “You weren’t going to say anything to him, until we brought him forward?”

Green says she’s been told that candidates of color have been screened out through reference checks. She says she also has been told that the district does not have the budget to recruit in areas of the country with a more diverse candidate pool, such recent graduates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, but that white candidates have been flown in from other parts of the country.

“They weren’t acting in good faith,” Green said.

District officials say the district has never paid for any candidate’s travel.

But Coogan said convincing teachers of color to move across the country to the Northwest is not always easy—and that diversity in Tukwila isn’t necessarily the same as diversity that teachers experience in the south.

“I believe in working in a district that represents every corner of the globe,” Coogan said.

However, Green said the NAACP Seattle/King County said the district should adopt some of its ideas for how to change hiring practices. She said the group wants to have input on the types of questions that district officials ask job candidates, and she says more people of color need to be on interview panels.

Green said Tukwila has been a priority for the NAACP Seattle/King County, but she added that no district in Washington has done a good job with diversity of its teachers.

I think all of the districts have issues with that,” Green said.

Tukwila community speaks

Several in the Tukwila district community responded this week to the NAACP’s confrontation of the board.

Foster High School senior Mohamed Abdi, a who is the student representative on the school board, told the rest of the board at its board meeting Tuesday night that he felt the NAACP criticism was unfair. He believes the district is headed in the right direction because in recent years, Foster High School’s atmosphere has improved.

This is a district that has a promising future… and we’re starting to change things for the better,” Abdi said.

Tukwila substitute high school teacher Lynette Finau, who also is a commissioner on the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, also spoke in support of the district’s efforts toward reacher diversity.

Finau said she is one of the few Pacific Islander teachers in Washington state, but that could change if students of color can identify with teachers from backgrounds like their own.

“Three of my Pacific Islander students are heading toward becoming a teacher,” Finau said. “Our students need to see teachers of color.

Luis Escamilla, a Martinez Fellow who teaches at Foster, told the board members Tuesday that district leaders need to be in front of diversity issues, including training sessions and discussions around race and culture.

“We celebrate diversity, but we stumble a lot when we try to talk about diversity, when we try to work with diversity,” Escamilla said.

Student journalist Azeb Tuji, a senior at Foster High School who is part of KUOW’s RadioActive program, said the confrontation brought the issue to the forefront of students’ minds, and brought up important points about boosting diversity at schools.

“The whole point of having teachers of color is to learn from different types of people,” Tuji said.

“Before I assumed that they [district officials] would try their best — that they had our back,” she said. “Now I feel like they could be doing a lot more.”

History of tensions

The current tension over teacher recruitment also comes a year after the district settled with teachers and employees who filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination by the previous superintendent, Ethelda Burke, who was accused of racism by Black teachers. The group also filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found in 2013 that the complaints were justified.

Some of the employees who filed the complaints told news reporters at the time that Burke referred to them as “slaves” and that she resisted hiring people of color.

The conflict drew some national attention, with a group of Black employees pitted against Burke, who also is Black and was an active member of the NAACP in Tacoma, the city where she previously was an administrator. Burke resigned Tukwila in 2012 saying the complaints had become a distraction for her leadership.

Updated May 13, 2015: This story was updated to include a response by the Tukwila School District to the claim that they flew a candidate in for an interview. District officials say they have never paid for a candidate’s travel.

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