Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Cambridge’s school district is struggling to increase the diversity of its employees to even half that of its students, some of whom are seen here in a May ceremony at City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Cambridge school officials had only moments Tuesday in which to appreciate the diversity of district administrators, faculty and staff before realizing they were even further behind their goals than they’d thought.

The year’s annual report on affirmative action, delivered to the School Committee by district recruiter Kahris McLaughlin and its executive director for human resources, Barbara J. Allen, showed mixed results in hiring and the total number of employees of color, including slight growth over the past two years in officials and administrators, instructional aides and technicians; a steady rate over one or two years for principals, assistant principals and deans, service workers and craft workers; and declines in teachers and clerks. (Although, as committee member Richard Harding noted, the figures can reflect dramatically a single person leaving or being hired.)

Compared with the state average, though, Cambridge stands out. The most dramatic comparison is in black teachers, who account for 9.6 percent of teachers in Cambridge but 2.6 percent across Massachusetts. At 4.8 percent each, Cambridge has twice the percent of Hispanic teachers as the state average and more than double the state figure on Asians.

Cambridge’s diversity hiring goal was 25 percent, though, and “we’re at 20 percent,” Allen said. “So we still have a way to go. Clearly we are ahead of some of the districts, but we are a more colorful district.” (The diversity hiring goal for city employees is 28 percent, she pointed out. U.S. Census information from 2000 puts the city’s nonwhite population at 39.3 percent.)

Indeed, if the diversity of the schools’ adults matched the students, fully 60 percent would be black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American or biracial, Allen said.

As important as it is for students of color to see their own diversity reflected among faculty and staff, “it’s probably even more important for white students to be exposed to a diverse staff,” McLaughlin said. “They need to understand that there are people who look at things a little differently, and it prepares them for the larger world.”

Research bears out that staff diversity improves attendance, discipline, dropout rates, cultural competence and overall satisfaction with and sense of relevance in a school, according to the annual report.

A bit of a stretch

Any sense of complacency with district figures was shattered when committee member Patty Nolan spoke. “There is some really good news in the report. We should be proud, but we also have not met our goals,” Nolan said, going on to remind the gathered officials of the notion of a “stretch goal” of 30 percent diversity in district hiring.

McLaughlin confirmed she’d written the proposal last year for that goal to be made official, saying “we could easily say it should be higher than that, when you look at the students … The recommendation has been made, but I’m not certain what happened.”

Mayor David Maher, who leads the committee, and his vice chairman, Marc McGovern, confirmed the 30 percent goal had, in fact, been adopted last winter.

As the officials adjusted to that — and committee member Alice Turkel protested that key personnel could be left uninformed of it for some months — it became clearer that the district had a bigger problem:

Finding people of color to hire is not easy.

“Cambridge is a very attractive district,” McLaughlin finds when she heads to historically black colleges and universities around the country recruiting or accepts resumes at local job fairs. She can talk herself hoarse and collect 800 curriculum vitae in a day.

But as fewer people of color or people in general get into teaching, the pool of applicants dwindles, and the state has “300 districts fighting over a few people,” she said. Even a black teacher tracked down in North Carolina is only likely to come teach in Cambridge — infamous for high housing costs and daunting weather — if “they already have roots in Massachusetts. The kids who left here are kind of coming back home.”

Within the state, teachers colleges are guilty of “weeding out” potentially great teachers just for failing the Massachusetts Tests for Education Licensure the first time they take it, she said. Along with such other goals as reinstituting an Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, the MTEL and how it is handled is an issue she vowed to take up with the state in the spring.

Holiday celebration

The students, meanwhile, have their own victory of diversity to celebrate: passage of their right to take off an Eid holiday during the school year, starting in 2011, just as Christians and Jews are allowed days off for their religious holidays.

A Muslim celebration of the achievement — a suggestion that was brought to the committee by students years ago — will take place at 7 tonight in City Hall, with catered Middle Eastern food.

“As a School Committee and as a school district, there’s only so much we can do in the bigger picture of world events, but it says a lot that this passed unanimously” and with the held of Superintendent Jeffrey Young and the Cambridge Teachers Association, McGovern said. “This community is saying we’re going to stand behind our belief in diversity in our schools and respect for all groups in our school district at a time certainly many groups in the Muslim community are facing a lot of discrimination in the world. And for us in our own small way to say ‘That’s not going to happen here’ is important.”