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New Oregon study outlines challenges facing superintendents of color

A groundbreaking new study on the barriers facing Oregon’s superintendents of color and possible solutions was made public Thursday.

The study, “Exploring the Lived Experiences of Superintendents of Color in Oregon,” was written by researchers and educational practitioners Dr. Tanisha Tate Woodson, Dr. Destiny McLennan and Dr. Karen Perez of Education Northwest. It was commissioned and funded by the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, the Oregon School Boards Association and the Oregon Department of Education.

Based on interviews with 16 superintendents of color, the study describes significant bias directed toward superintendents of color and even threats against personal safety. “Superintendents of color, especially women superintendents, reported incidents where their physical safety was threatened,” the report notes.

Fewer than 5% of Oregon superintendents identify as persons of color, despite that nearly 2 in 5 students statewide are racially, ethnically and/or linguistically diverse.

The report makes a number of recommendations for recruiting and retaining superintendents of color, among them: using talent acquisition firms, training board members on hiring and support systems, applying an equity lens to applicant pools, better mentoring and supporting superintendents of color, developing pathway programs for candidates, updating contract language, and creating safety plans for superintendents.

“This study makes it clear that it is past time for us to be vocal in support of our colleagues of color, and to implement the study’s recommendations for recruiting, retaining and supporting diverse leaders,” said Craig Hawkins, COSA’s executive director. “It is a fact that superintendents of color, especially women, are experiencing direct threats to their safety and the safety of their families.  This is unacceptable and requires immediate action from people who hold power.  As an important first step, there are bills in the February session that will provide sorely needed leadership stability and school board training – two of the main recommendations from this study.”

“This is a clear call to action for Oregon school board members,” said Scott Rogers, president of the Oregon School Boards Association, which provides services for about 1,400 Oregon school board members. “As school leaders, it’s our role to break down barriers and embrace solutions that benefit our diverse student populations.”

ODE Director Colt Gill said it’s clear that greater diversity is needed at the superintendent level to benefit students of all backgrounds.

“The study makes a compelling case for swift and real changes to support the recruitment, retention, and well-being of superintendents of color — in districts, in school boards, and at a state policy level,” Gill said. “Specifically, policy change at each of these levels can ensure greater protections and privacy should threats, intimidation, harassment, or smear campaigns occur, as well as accountability if discriminatory practices occur.”

“Our BIPOC superintendents clearly deserve better supports so they can thrive,” said Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus. “The solutions begin at the board level, as equal-opportunity employers and as role models for empowering and supporting staff and students without bias against their identity. For the good of our students, we need to start now.”

The study and executive summary are available at the links below:

Full Report:
Executive summary: