SALEM, MA — Salem is examining some hard truths as it looks to take concrete steps to make its teaching and school employee staff more closely resemble the racial makeup of its student population.
The School Committee on Monday night heard a Barr Foundation-funded report to examine systems and structures within the district and whether they are aligned to support the recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce.
The report determined that while the district has made some progress in that regard, there is a long way to go — especially in the area of retaining the BIPOC staff that it does onboard. While the report found the paraprofessional population rates higher in diversity than the teaching population, Salem still lags below the Nationwide average in the ratio.
The report said Nationwide 18 percent of the staff is BIPOC compared to 49 percent of students in public schools, while in Salem it is 12 percent of staff compared to 58 percent of students.
“This is not just a Salem problem,” Salem Director of Family, Community and Employee Engagement Ruben Carmona said. “This is a Nationwide problem. But as we can see in Salem there is a big gap between the demographic of our students vs. the number of teachers that we have.
“That’s a challenge.”
Carmona said there is also a significantly higher percentage of the BIPOC staff population that said they are fairly likely or very likely to leave the district within the next couple of years — 48 percent of BIPOC staff compared to 30 percent of white staff.
“I want to underscore the importance of the retention piece of this,” Salem Superintendent Steve Zrike said. “I think too often we focus too much on the recruitment side. But the data
does show we are also losing high numbers of teachers of color. It’s not easy to be one or two as a staff of color in the building and not feel supported.
“The experiences that our staff of color is having are going to go a long way and we have to adjust the way we work. We have to Coach some principals. We have to make sure the culture is right in some of our buildings. Right now it is not right in every building for staff to be retained – let alone staff of color to be there for long periods of time.”
The report said that students taught by staff that resemble them are less likely to be suspended, more likely to complete high school and more likely to be recommended for gifted and advanced programs.
“It is important to me to see mirrors in front of me as opposed to the windows that we see here,” Salem Public Schools Recruitment Manager Stacey Johnson said. “When students see mirrors, they are more likely to go on to do greater things, if they see someone who looks like they do.”
Carmona said “hiring biases” still exist where Principals can be more apt to “hire someone they like, someone they’d go have a drink with” with one recommendation for improving staff diversity being to begin the annual hiring process earlier.
“In Salem, like a lot of other communities, it’s tied to when the budget gets passed,” Zrike said. “It doesn’t necessarily need to be that way — especially if you know you have known retirees, you have people who are leaving, to get into the hiring process earlier.
“The charter schools are masterful at hiring in December and January and we need to be out in the market looking for folks then because that’s when you get the most talented and diverse folks.”
School Committee member Kristin Pangallo noted that the cost of housing is a unique barrier in a city like Salem.
“If we are bringing people to the area, especially if they are just starting out just out of college, there may be a bit of a disconnect there,” Pangallo said. “Maybe we should put some thought into how we should address that particular challenge.”
Johnson said she has worked to put together lists of affordable housing — either in Salem or within commuting distance — for candidates hired from outside the district, while Mayor and School Committee Chair Kim Driscoll said the city is still exploring the possibility of one day providing ” on-campus housing” at Salem High School.
“We wouldn’t be the first community to do that,” Driscoll said. “It becomes a recruitment tool. We have a space you can rent at a more affordable rate.
“That becomes a great hook to get people working for our school district.”
(Scott Souza is a Patch field editor covering Beverly, Danvers, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Swampscott. He can be reached at [email protected] Twitter: @Scott_Souza.)