Burlington schools exceeding diversity goals

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) The Burlington School Board on Tuesday night reviewed Superintendent Yaw Obeng's performance. Now, we're getting a deeper look at one of Obeng's 2018 goals-- hiring diverse candidates. From the superintendent's report, it looks like the district has been more than successful in its goal to have an inclusive staff. Our Neliana Ferraro takes a closer look at the numbers.

"I would want to see someone who actually can speak Spanish," said Thomás Gaviria Cullins, a Burlington student.

Some Burlington parents and students are hoping for a more diverse staff in their schools.

"There's a bunch of different races at my old New York school and there isn't much here," said Will Buntain, a student.

Jay Nichols of the Vermont Principals' Association says research in the last few years has shown young boys especially benefit from having diverse teachers.

"It's a big difference. It helps them academically. And you think, 'Really?' But the reason that it does is there's just something about that relationship of saying to yourself, 'I see somebody like me who has become a teacher that looks like me,'" Nichols said.

Back in January 2017, Superintendent Yaw Obeng set a goal to hire 20 diverse staff members in a variety of positions. Between then and now the district has brought on 89 diverse hires, most of them identifying as black or Asian.

Vermont's diversity numbers are still well behind the national average for nonwhite teachers, which in 2016 was 17 percent.

The Burlington School District is a touch more diverse than the state, with 4 percent nonwhite teachers compared to the state average of 3 percent.

Nichols says Vermont has a tough time attracting diverse candidates.

"Burlington and Winooski have better diversity, so I think that helps people be more likely to stay there. But if you look around and there's not really people that look like you, human nature is you tend to gravitate for that," Nichols said.

Parents recognize the hiring challenges administrators face.

"In a place like Vermont, that's hard. That takes a lot of extra effort," said Sarah Cullins, a Burlington parent.

But in the quest for diversity parents say it's still important to pick qualified applicants.

"If you can do that, then great, but I wouldn't force it," one Burlington dad said. "You want the best teacher."

According to Obeng's report, the district has exceeded it diversity hiring goals.

Back in 2012, the Burlington School District was plagued by racial tensions, slurs and bullying.

Under Jeanne Collins, the superintendent before Obeng, the district committed itself to hiring and retaining diverse staff members.

As part of Obeng's performance goals in 2017, his office has been focusing on outreach and recruiting, creating partnerships with historically minority colleges, training staff to improve retention rates and supporting new hires.

Nichols says retaining diverse hires is difficult all across Vermont.

"We had a principal a couple years ago who left Vermont just because they didn't see enough people that looked like them. So that's an issue. We need to do everything we can to open the doors to that so we expose our kids to as much diversity as we can," Nichols said.

The superintendent's report acknowledges that diversity is about more than just race and ethnicity, and the district's work toward a more diverse staff is far from over.