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Waco ISD aims to overcome racial disparity between teachers, students

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When Ramona Curtis graduated from Waco Independent School District in 1979, the only reason she saw college as an option was because of the black teachers who took time to speak with her about it.

That is not to say white teachers and academic counselors avoided her. They just never spoke about the possibilities of higher education. She does not know if they thought she lacked the potential or if it was because of the color of her skin, Curtis said.

Now working toward a doctoral degree and an expert in race relations and social inequities, Curtis is using her role in the community to bring more awareness to disproportionate teacher demographics in Waco ISD in the wake of five schools facing the possibility of closure by the state, she said. Curtis is on the board of Prosper Waco, a nonprofit the district has plans to partner with to keep the schools open.

A review of Waco ISD demographic data shows 65 percent of the district’s 1,014 teachers are white, 15 percent are black and 18 percent are Hispanic. The data shows 60 percent of the district’s 15,000 students are Hispanic, 28 percent are black and 9 percent are white.

“We’re very aware of our teacher demographics,” said Elaine Botello, Waco ISD’s assistant superintendent for human resources. “While we want to hire the best qualified teacher, especially at the IR (improvement-required) campuses, we want to hire teachers with proven success. It’s important we do that districtwide. However, we want to make sure we’re giving everyone an equal opportunity for employment.”

Teacher demographic comparison

Source: Texas Academic Performance Reports, Texas Education Agency

District % Black % Hispanic % White % Other % Econ. Disadv.
Waco 15.1 17 65.9 2 85.4
STATE AVG. 10.2 26.6 59.8 3.4 59
La Vega 15.5 9.2 73.8 1.5 87.9
Dallas 34.6 29 30.6 5.8 87.8
Robstown 0.2 84.3 15.4 0.1 87.5
Aldine 42 23.3 29.9 4.8 86.2
Nacogdoches 15.1 7.9 76.7 0.2 81.3
Houston 36.2 28.6 28.3 6.8 77.1
Marshall 32.8 7.3 57.6 2.4 77.1
Connally 9.2 6.3 82.8 1.8 76.9
Fort Worth 22.1 21.8 53.9 2.2 76.7
Duncanville 36.2 12.2 32.6 18.9 76
Athens 5.8 7.8 83.5 3 76
Bryan 7 20 70.7 2.4 75.2
Corsicana 6.8 7.5 82.1 3.7 75.1
Palestine 9.4 9.7 78.6 2.3 74.9
Temple 11.3 8.6 77.2 2.9 73.2
Galveston 15.6 19.1 60.9 4.4 72.5
McGregor 3 5.2 91.8 0 72
Longview 32.4 11.7 54.3 1.6 71
Abilene 3.1 13.2 81.4 2.4 70.8
Hillsboro 3.7 9.3 83.9 3.1 70.4
Moody 0 5.1 91.5 3.4 68.6
Rapoport 10.4 6.7 82.9 0 68.2
Lubbock 3.2 19.8 74.2 2.7 66.8
Tyler 17 16.2 63.7 3.1 63.3
Wichita Falls 6.4 9.2 82.1 2.2 62.7
Whitney 1.8 1.8 96.3 0 62
Killeen 18 15.1 60.9 6.1 55
Copperas Cove 11.9 10.9 73.3 3.9 54.3
Harmony Science 11.3 10.2 70.1 8.4 54.2
Austin 5.7 29.5 61.3 3.5 53.3
Gatesville 1.5 5.1 91.9 1.5 51.6
Lampasas 0.4 4.8 91.7 3.1 51.1
Troy 0 4.9 94.1 1 48
Belton 3.2 11.3 83.9 1.7 45.1
Georgetown 1.5 12.7 83.9 1.9 43.3
Hutto 3.7 18.6 75.7 2.1 42.2
West 0 0 100 0 41.6
Denton 5 9.2 49.7 36.1 41.5
College Station 3 9.2 86.6 1.2 34.9
Robinson 0.6 2.3 96 1.1 33.2
Midway 1.8 6.9 89.9 1.3 30.5
Round Rock 4 16.3 74.8 4.9 25.9
China Spring 0.4 5.5 93.6 0.5 24.9
Lorena 0 1.7 98.3 0 24.1

The district’s teacher demographics reflect state and national norms, said Lakia Scott, an assistant professor in education at Baylor University who teaches diversity courses to people training to be teachers. Throughout the country, most teachers are white women, Scott said.

Statewide, 60 percent of teachers are white, according to Texas Education Agency data.

At the national level, students of color are expected to make up 56 percent of the student population by 2024, and teachers remain “overwhelmingly white,” according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Education. Between 2000 and 2015, the percentage of white teachers nationwide remained almost flat, dipping from 84 percent to 82 percent, according to the report.

“It’s critically important to consider the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of our educators, but I also think it’s dually important that if they don’t match the cultural or ethnic population of our students, that they’re dually equipped and competent to address the issues those students face,” Scott said. “… Cultural mismatch happens in the classroom, but there are so many factors that influence recruiting teachers of color.”

The cultural mismatch is her biggest concern, Curtis said.

She grew up middle class, with a mother heavily involved in her education and a father who was a preacher and had been in the military. Both had a segregated education.

A first-generation college student, Curtis went through the education systems in Texas and Missouri. The difference between how she was treated and how her peers were treated never came down to financial status, she said. It always came down to race.

Curtis felt lower on the totem pole because white teachers taught books with only white students in photos. She would read ahead in the textbook during certain history lessons so she could put her head down before the word “slave” came up so she could avoid stares from her white peers looking back at her desk.

She grew up experiencing racist phrases, and when she buried herself in Nancy Drew books, she only imagined herself as the mystery-solver’s black sidekick.

But what she remembered the most was how her white teachers did nothing to change it.

“Do you see how I internalized that? I felt I could never be best, but I could be second best because of the world around me,” Curtis said. “So, yes, (teaching demographics) matter.”

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Ramona Curtis

Ramona Curtis discusses the importance of teachers being able to relate to their students’ experiences and the difficulties of teacher demographics that don’t align with student demographics.

Waco ISD officials said they are addressing the issue by requiring all teachers hired to go through cultural diversity training before they enter the classroom.

Andrea Guerrero, a new third-grade teacher at the predominantly Hispanic Bell’s Hill Elementary School, said the training has helped her keep the difficulties in her own learning experiences at the forefront as she develops her teaching practices. She was one of the few Hispanic children in Crawford ISD, a predominately white district.

She was drawn to teaching in Waco ISD because of her desire to help low performing students and she served on several campuses as a student teacher before her hire, she said.

“It’s important because they do see you as somebody who is their own in a way,” Guerrero said. “But if you have different ethnicities of teachers, I think it’s strongly about how a teacher is performing and if they’re able to relate to them. But being Hispanic and most of my kids are Hispanic, I was able to relate to them more because I knew the different types of backgrounds they come from.”

When the district is deciding which colleges to recruit from, staff considers the demographics of the students training to be teachers, said Botello, the human resources superintendent.

But in a county that has 19 other public school districts, several charters and private schools — not to mention nearby districts like Austin and Dallas — offering competitive pay, there’s plenty of competition, Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson said.

Nelson is Waco ISD’s first black superintendent, and he recently delivered a presentation in Austin about the importance of teacher diversity.

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A. Marcus Nelson

Nelson

“Some of the best teachers I know are white female teachers, and they love their minority students as if they’re their own,” Nelson said. “It’s not about race. For us, we definitely want to be sensitive, and in any pedagogy, you would want to have a teaching demographic that at least mirrors your student demographic.

“But if you can’t, then you’ve just got to train teachers who may not be from that background to understand the cultural differences that come if you haven’t been around it.”

The district offers two “grow our own” teacher programs, Botello said. At the high school level, the district will make a conditional employment offer to students in the top 10 percent of their class GPA ranking who are going into education and plan to return to Waco ISD. But participation is low, and the program needs to be improved, Botello said.

The district’s other program reimburses paraprofessionals, instructional aides and clerical staff taking courses to become teachers, but it also needs improvements, she said.

But the effort to encourage a diverse base of teachers cannot be limited to recruiting people already in the field, Scott, the Baylor professor, said.

Communities need to actively empower minority students to go into the education field by showing them teaching is an advantageous position, Scott said.

Nelson said that in 1994, as a young black man at Abilene Christian University who had come from poverty and was about to enter the education field, he remembers getting more attention from recruiting districts than his white peers. He would even get on-the-spot contract offers, he said.

“Most minorities will tell you they’re discouraged of going to major in education. I encourage you to study that phenomenon,” Nelson said. “Even back in the ’90s, it was, ‘No, Nelson if you’re going to go, you don’t want to teach and coach when you can go be an accountant or go to law school.’

“When you’re first-generation college and you don’t have a bunch of people around you who have college experience, they’re trying to encourage you to go for medicine, where they pay more.”

But there is a new sense of buy-in from Waco ISD residents, and many have been vocal about the need for more diversity, Scott said.

Waco ISD teacher demographics by campus

Source: Waco Independent School District

Campus White % Black % Hispanic % 2+ Races % Others % Total
Alta Vista 26 76.5% 3 8.8% 4 11.8% 1 2.9% 0 0.0% 34
Bell's Hill 32 64.0% 0 0.0% 18 36.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 50
Brook Ave. 12 48.0% 6 24.0% 7 28.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 25
Cedar Ridge 24 64.9% 2 5.4% 11 29.7% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 37
Crestview 32 76.2% 1 2.4% 7 16.7% 0 0.0% 2 4.8% 42
Dean Highland 30 66.7% 6 13.3% 8 17.8% 1 2.2% 0 0.0% 45
Hillcrest PDS 20 74.1% 1 3.7% 6 22.2% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 27
J.H. Hines 20 55.6% 10 27.8% 4 11.1% 0 0.0% 2 5.6% 36
Kendrick 18 54.5% 0 0.0% 14 42.4% 0 0.0% 1 3.0% 33
Lake Air Mont. 35 77.8% 2 4.4% 8 17.8% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 45
Mountainview 26 92.9% 0 0.0% 1 3.6% 1 3.6% 0 0.0% 28
Parkdale 31 81.6% 4 10.5% 2 5.3% 0 0.0% 1 2.6% 38
Provident Heights 16 61.5% 1 3.8% 9 34.6% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 26
South Waco 8 23.5% 24 70.6% 2 5.9% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 34
West Ave. 5 22.7% 9 40.9% 8 36.4% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 22
Carver Middle 19 55.9% 12 35.3% 3 8.8% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 34
Chavez Middle 46 73.0% 6 9.5% 10 15.9% 1 1.6% 0 0.0% 63
Indian Spr. Middle 20 50.0% 9 22.5% 8 20.0% 2 5.0% 1 2.5% 40
Tennyson Middle 45 71.4% 11 17.5% 6 9.5% 1 1.6% 0 0.0% 63
Brazos Credit Rec. 8 61.5% 3 23.1% 1 7.7% 1 7.7% 0 0.0% 13
Challenge Acad. 2 50.0% 1 25.0% 1 25.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 4
GWAHCA 6 85.7% 0 0.0% 1 14.3% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 7
GWAMA 5 55.6% 0 0.0% 4 44.4% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 9
University High 69 61.6% 18 16.1% 22 19.6% 1 0.9% 2 1.8% 112
Waco High 81 66.4% 20 16.4% 17 13.9% 2 1.6% 2 1.6% 122
Wiley Opportunity Center 11 73.3% 4 26.7% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 15
Advanced Academics 5 100.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 5
Career and Tech. 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 1 100.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 1
Special Education 3 75.0% 0 0.0% 1 25.0% 0 0.0% 0 0.0% 4
TOTALS 655 64.60% 153 15.1% 184 18.1% 11 1.1% 11 1.1% 1,014

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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