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Opinion: 561,000 Reasons to Support Superintendents of Color in Oregon

By Colt Gill (ODE), Jim Green (OSBA), Craig Hawkins (COSA), Daniel Ramirez (EAC) and Anthony Rosilez (TSPC)

Oregon’s public schools are more diverse now than at any other time in our history, but the number of superintendents of color in our state is not just stagnant, it is in a highly concerning free-fall. Only a handful of the 197 school districts in the State of Oregon are led by superintendents of color, and we believe this is a serious problem.

In recent years, student demographics have continued to shift in Oregon. Today, nearly two of every five students (38.5%) are racially, ethnically, and/or linguistically diverse.  There are 25 districts in Oregon where students of color make up the majority of their schools’ population.  Meanwhile, the composition of our educator and administrator workforce is changing very slowly. The 2020 Oregon Educator Equity Report shows that just 11.7% of teachers and 12.5% of administrators are racially, ethnically, and/or linguistically diverse.

This disparity is glaring in the ranks of our school superintendents. After five departures this spring, less than 5 percent of Oregon superintendents today are leaders of color. Put another way, Oregon now has so few superintendents of color that they could all ride together in vehicle.

Why does this matter? Because these numbers indicate a frightening trend that will not benefit students, educators or communities. And this lack of visible representation conveys a perception that Oregon is not a welcoming or supportive environment for leaders of color, making it even more challenging to recruit, support or encourage educational leaders to consider the superintendent role.

Decades of research provide data about the positive impacts of educator diversity on academic achievement and social and emotional development for BIPOC and Tribal students, as well as their white peers. Studies show that students of color benefit from higher teacher expectations and from seeing members of their own race/ethnicity as role models in respected professions.  

That’s why, under Oregon’s Educator Equity Act, “the goal of the state is that the percentage of diverse educators employed by a school district or an education service district reflects the percentage of diverse students in the public schools of this state or the percentage of diverse students in the district.” Our experience in Oregon has demonstrated that districts led by superintendents of color attract a more diverse educator workforce and welcome, otherwise unheard, community voices in district decision-making.

But today, our school boards are challenged to find and keep leaders that reflect the makeup of our schools.  Our school communities – and the organizations we lead – are challenged to support and retain leaders of color. For this to change, we have to change. We need to change our systems, our behaviors and our approaches. Our students need leadership that directly reflects their identities, and we need both immediate and sustainable long-term solutions. It’s imperative that school districts communicate a goal to hire leaders of color, and prioritize their support and success, if they are to attract and retain leaders of color. This also means that school systems must also indicate an explicit willingness to center the needs of students of color, including the prioritization of a more culturally responsive and inclusive educational environment. School boards have a specific role and responsibility here, given that superintendents are their one and only employee to directly support, supervise and evaluate.

The Oregon Department of Education (ODE), the Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA), the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators (COSA) and the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC) commit to immediately commission a study to examine the difficulties Oregon is facing in recruiting, hiring, and retaining superintendents of color. The study will include interviews with current and former Oregon leaders of color, to learn from their unique lived experiences and to understand what factors contribute to their success or career challenges. The study will outline recommendations for change and improvement, and we will implement those recommendations.

Also important is Senate Bill 334, which requires equity and governance training for school boards. We encourage the legislature to pass this important legislation. We also encourage the legislature to support the work of the State Board of Education on the development of local school district equity committees that can better inform school board decisions. We encourage the higher education institutions in Oregon to partner with us by also recruiting and developing diverse future educators and leaders. We are encouraged by a recent focus on grow-your-own career pathways and we need to accelerate progress in these promising initiatives.

We believe these steps will move Oregon’s schools in a better direction over time. Let’s also consider what we can do to immediately address this loss for our children. COSA, for example, will work to create stronger networks of support for leaders of color. We also ask that school boards and communities take public, intentional steps to hire superintendents and other leaders of color and look to experts to understand what it takes to support and retain these leaders in a way that allows them to thrive. Our state associations will continue to refocus our professional learning and governance training to offer a greater attention on this topic.

Making this effort locally likely means doing some things that sound simple but can prove difficult when relationships are already stressed: Invite conversation. Ask people involved what they need. Listen. Learn. Respond. Keep an open heart and mind. Show support in new, bigger and meaningful ways. Examine – and improve – your own systems and practices.  Ask yourself what a welcoming and supportive work environment looks, feels and sounds like, especially for educators and leaders of color. Take a first step in this direction and then take another.

These actions, and the hiring decisions around them, will have significant repercussions for students. As we emerge from the pandemic, many students of color and their families have been disproportionately impacted and will be working to overcome even greater barriers than they faced in early 2020.

We have nearly 561,000 students in our K-12 schools. That’s 561,000 reasons to get this right.