Diversity of staff in Amherst’s schools on the rise

  • Amherst Regional High School

Staff Writer
Published: 1/22/2023 9:04:56 PM

AMHERST — A 6-year-old project to diversify the teaching staff in the Amherst and regional public schools to better match the racial makeup of the student body continues to yield results.

At the Amherst Regional School Committee on Tuesday, members of the Diversity, Equity and Human Resources department gave an overview of the ongoing work that, according to Department of Elementary and Secondary Education statistics, shows there has been significant progress since the 2016-2017 school year.

As of the 2021-2022 school year, Black educators, measured as full-time equivalents, have gone from 33.8 to 55.6, the number of Latino educators has increased from 49.5 to 76.3, and the number of Asian educators has risen from nine to 21.6. Teachers of color now make up about 31% of educators at both the elementary and secondary schools, up from about 20% six years ago. Meanwhile, students of color represent 55% of the elementary school population and 43% of the regional population.

“We are on a good trend as far as diversifying,” said Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent of Diversity, Equity and Human Resources.

Although Cunningham said progress still needs to be made, the challenges of doing outreach and recruitment have diminished.

“We’ve come so far, and we’re doing much better, and we acknowledge where we make mistakes and where we have to do better by everyone,” Cunningham said. “People look at that and they appreciate we are this transparent.”

These numbers are being achieved by improving hiring practices, retention efforts and professional development, among other strategies, education officials said.

Cunningham explained that the charge to increase the diversity of staff until teachers matched student diversity began in 2017, with directions taken from a Search Process Review Committee that gave input on changing hiring practices by creating a more consistent process with an emphasis on getting more people of color into the system.

“As we know from our previous numbers, the district as well as Massachusetts at the time was predominantly white,” Cunningham said.

Since then, the schools have included a process for promoting educators to professional teacher status within the organization, interviewing applicants without using resumes as primary criteria, and helping staff prepare for advancement through professional development.

Superintendent Michael Morris said the process has been about getting the right people into the right positions to be successful.

“It’s a broad approach we’ve taken and I think we’ve realized significant results,” Morris said.

Amherst representative Peter Demling said he appreciates the body of work done so far by Cunningham and her team, and the need to take a long view.

“Those numbers of increasing diversity of staff over five years are amazing,” Demling said. “It’s really a testament to how you’ve taken it as a holistic view.”

“You are a small but mighty team that’s tackling a plethora of small things that together add up to much, much greater than the sum of their parts,” said Amherst representative Allison McDonald.

Work underway

Other staff in the department gave more specifics about the work underway.

Carol Newman Rose, assistant to the assistant superintendent and a human resources generalist, said an important adjustment to the hiring process was separating the screening committee from the interview committee.

This allowed members of the screening committee to examine resumes and then not forward certain information to the interview committee, including resumes. This two-step process is a cornerstone of diversifying the staff, which also includes having the interview committee focus on asking consistent, prescribed questions to all applicants and having a robust conversation.

This process, Rose said, also is a way to ensure that diverse candidates with emergency or provisional licenses — who might not yet have earned permanent licenses — would be given interviews. Without relying on a resume at the interview stage, a consistently framed conversation can ensue, and followup questions can be presented.

“We try to make sure that there's always consistency so that no one can come back and say they asked me question this because I’m x, y or z,” Cunningham said.

Damany Gordon, equity and diversity specialist, referred to the changed hiring practice and other recruiting strategies for outreach that has meant “significant changes in terms of diversification of our staff.”

Gordon cited the district’s participation in Grow Your Own — Amherst Futures, a partnership with Mount Holyoke College in which paraeducators of color have a pathway to get teacher certification.

“From this program that we started a few years ago, so far we’ve had 22 paraeducators move into teaching roles, as well as admin roles,” Gordon said.

Jennifer Ortiz, human resources administrator, said human resources used a more proactive approach to make candidate pools larger through a targeted approach of selling the district.

“We’ve been very successful in finding very highly qualified candidates who express that interest in our district,” Ortiz said.

There has been more flexibility in getting staff hired, Ortiz said, using waivers or emergency licenses, and those staff are given interim contracts until they obtain professional licenses.

But Ortiz said the human resources department is mostly hands off. After candidate interviews, principals continue to make recommendations to Morris for hiring, and he makes the final call.

“Ultimately the decision falls within the purview of the superintendent, and that’s how the hiring decision is made,” Ortiz said.

The emphasis on professional development, wellness and self-care of educators has also been important, Cunningham said, with discussions of race and understanding how systemic racism and unconscious bias affects the environment in the schools. Cunningham said the schools are often offering safe space for teachers so they can feel respected and heard, and like they belong.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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