Diversifying Nebraska's Teacher Base

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December 27, 2018 - 6:45am

In Nebraska, roughly a third of students in public schools are minorities – but only 4.4 percent of the teachers in the state are minorities. NET News reports on a statewide push to diversify the teacher base.

At Lincoln Public Schools headquarters, a district-wide event called "The Future Multicultural Teachers Workshop" was held in 2018. Minority students from all six LPS high schools were in attendance. One thing the high school students in attendance had in common – they were interested in becoming teachers. The 75 students in the room played ice breaker games to get acquainted. Chastity Hyman, a sophomore at Lincoln North Star, was all smiles during the team building exercises.

Percentage of Teachers who are Minorities

Nebraska          --    4.35%

Columbus          --    3.2%

Grand Island      --    3.8%

Lincoln               --    5.4%

Omaha              --     11.65%

Percentage of Students who are Minorities

Nebraska          --     33.03%

Columbus         --     44.7%

Grand Island     --     57.3%

Lincoln             --     33.0%

Omaha             --      72.1%


*Data compiled from the Nebraska Department of Education and individual school districts by NET News.

“I think it's really important for all of these people to get together and hopefully someday join the workforce with LPS, so we can have a more diverse district," Hyman said.

Within Lincoln Public Schools, 94 percent of teachers are white, while 33 percent of the students in the district are minority students. Studies show if a student has a teacher who looks like them, they’ll do better in school. Thomas Christie, the multicultural administrator for Lincoln Public Schools, has seen the evidence after running the event for the last 15 years.

Thomas Christie discusses the importance of having a diverse teacher base with LPS students. (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

He retired in 2018 after 43 years with LPS. He said minority students attending the event feel like they belong because they are surrounded by people just like they are who aren’t white.

“The first time I did it, some of the kids were almost in tears," Christie said. "Because they said, ‘I've never been in a class, I'm usually one or two in the A.P. classes or in their differential or gifted classes and it's so lonely sometimes.’”

Christie knows the impact this event can have on students.

“I think it makes them feel that they can do it and if there are others that are interested in doing it," Christie said. "That's one of the reasons we have it, so that they realize that there are others that are interested in teaching as well.”

Christie said events like this one that bring together minority students interested in teaching help the district to, in his words, “grow our own.” Christie said he has seen a slight increase in additional minority teachers at LPS since the event’s inception. He said when recruiting teachers to Nebraska, the minority candidates also respond in a way similar to minority students. They want to feel comfortable and accepted.

“It's beyond impactful," said Nicole Regan, whose job is to recruit and hire teachers for the Lincoln schools. "We see the difference every day and you hear it in the interviews, because the reason why teachers of color choose this profession is they really do it to make an impact on their community.”

Regan said diversifying teachers at LPS is a part of the district’s strategic plan, but it’s always been a “challenge.”

Thomas Christie gives a presentation at the LPS event "Future Multicultural Teachers Workshop" (Photo by Brandon McDermott)

“We can teach them how to teach science and math," Regan said. "But we can't teach that piece of those relationships of students that come from a same experience and saying, ‘I know what you're going through or I know what you're thinking.’”

Jenni Benson is president of the Nebraska State Education Association, a union representing 28,000 public school teachers. She has two biracial children. Her son won a national scholarship to college and was asked to write about a teacher who influenced him for the application.

"And the teacher he picked was an African-American teacher Carolyn Godwin who taught at Lincoln High for many years," Benson said. "It always struck me as that even in our family, he still needed that role model and we just don't have enough.”

Benson said her son is now a mentor for a new generation of minorities. She said it’s more than diversifying teachers and hiring more minorities. It’s about making an impact.

“In order to do that we need to have them see teachers that look like them in the classrooms and then after that then we can continue to work on how do we encourage kids of every diversity to go into education to begin with," Benson said.

Within Omaha Public Schools, the most diverse district in the state, minority students make up more than two-thirds of the students enrolled. However, only 12 percent of teachers at OPS are people of color. The figures are similar in Grand Island Public Schools, but there, 85 percent of students are white.

The percentage of minority teachers is similar amongst the most diverse populations across the state. Troy Loeffelholz, the superintendent of Columbus Public Schools, said his district has 44 percent minority students and out of 275 teachers, only nine are minorities. Loeffelholz said getting more diversity in his school district makes complete sense.

“There are so many advantages by having more than one culture in your community," Loeffelholz said. "I've really challenged our kids – who speak both Spanish and English – what a great advantage they have. Whether they want to go into education, medicine, law – it doesn't matter – if you hold a skill set that not very many Americans hold.”

Columbus is also trying to get students in the district involved in teaching. But since the minority population is comparatively small, Loeffelholz said the focus is more on teachers from other states.

“It’s a different cultural component, it's colder, "Loeffelholz said. "There's some barriers – we've all been able to get one or two, so far. But, that's one or two more than we would have ever gotten if we had not tried to do something like this.”

Loeffelholz said the district is working with the Nebraska Public Power District in a program called Engaging Diversity. The program focuses on recruiting legal foreign immigrants to the United States– with degrees in education, engineering and dentistry. Loeffelholz wants the district to work with the Department of Education to get a provisional certification for those with a degree in education who qualify to teach in classrooms.

Back at the event in Lincoln, North Star student Vanessa Cruz is reading a poem she's written about herself.

“I feel like with a person that's of the same race as you, you're more able to connect with people," Cruz said.

And that’s the whole point on an event like this. In the next two decades, the Nebraska Department of Education hopes this effort pays off with a teaching workforce that matches the student population.


(Editor's note: This story is part of our "Best of 2018" Signature Story report. The story originally aired and was published in April.)



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