Efforts to grow teacher diversity must accelerate

I recently had the opportunity to testify on the importance of a diverse teacher workforce and share Meyer’s work to support educators of color. Here's the extended version of that testimony with deep appreciation to all the educators who have helped inform it. —Bekah

For the record, my name is Bekah Sabzalian. I am the equitable education program officer at Meyer Memorial Trust, a licensed Oregon teacher and a member of the Multnomah Clackamas Region Educator Network. I am Apache and Mexican American with family ties to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. I have worked in education for the last 13 years: in a nonprofit, in the largest district in the state and now in philanthropy.

When I taught sixth grade, my school’s reading specialist recommended a book for my students called Homeless Bird. She told me it was an award winning realistic fiction novel about a 13-year-old East Indian girl whose parents marry her off to a much older man. I asked if the book was written by an Indian or Indian American author, considering the sensitivity of the subject matter and thinking specifically of the impact on the Indian American students in my class.

As it turns out, the book was written by a white woman from the Midwest with no ties to India. The story was totally imagined—pure fiction. It contained a number of false and outdated representations of Indian life and culture.

If I hadn’t already experienced the impact of damaging stories and misrepresentation about Native and Latinx people, I may not have had the sensitivity—or the courage, quite frankly— to question this district-promoted book.

What teachers present to students is powerful. When I declined to teach that book, my colleagues were angry with me at first. But we learned and made progress together benefiting all students.

The advantages of a diverse teaching workforce are well supported by research. Teachers of color embody possibilities for all students. White students benefit from exposure to people of color in leadership positions and exposure to different cultural backgrounds, while students of color benefit from seeing people who look like them in positive, impactful careers. With a diverse teaching workforce, all students are better prepared for their futures.

Teachers of color are often called upon to lead professional development on race and equity in schools, to assist with language translation, and as my personal story just illustrated, often arrive in classrooms with cultural assets that they actively grow and share throughout their careers.

Since 2017 Meyer Memorial Trust has invested over $1.5 million in teacher pathway and grow your own programs around the state. From Hood River to Southern Oregon and Salem to the Coast, these programs are developing strategies to recruit diverse teachers. But recruitment is not enough. To truly make these investments impactful, we must retain the diverse teachers these efforts support. To that end, Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio has invested over $4.5 million in district and regional efforts designed to increase cultural inclusion, address bias in schools and create conditions where all teachers and students can excel.

These investments were informed by educators of color. For the last three years, Meyer has convened educators of color to learn what challenges and motivates them. Allowing participants to collectively problem-solve and network. A key theme emerges every year: isolation. Educators of color, especially those in districts with extremely low percentages of diverse teachers feel very alone. This causes many to think of leaving the profession. Growing the number of diverse teachers is essential to retaining those already working in schools across the state. Growth can only occur through a two-prong approach: investment in both recruitment and retention efforts. As a member of the Multnomah Clackamas Region Educator Network, I know we are beginning to make progress.

There is unprecedented coordination between districts, philanthropy, universities, state agencies and community organizations to comprehensively address the lack of diverse teachers in Oregon. As we face an uncertain economic future, I ask that you do all in your power to protect these investments and advance the growth and retention of this important resource for our students and for the future of Oregon’s communities.

Oregon teachers and Meyer staff at the 2018 Teachers of Color Gathering at the Thomas Aschenbrener Center for Philanthropy in Portland.

Oregon teachers and Meyer staff at the 2018 Teachers of Color Gathering at the Thomas Aschenbrener Center for Philanthropy in Portland.

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Foundations for a Better Oregon is disrupting the root causes of inequity in education

Investments in strategies that support crucial system inputs that are designed to shift culture within Oregon’s education system and build new approaches to addressing old challenges are essential to developing an ecosystem where innovative ideas, people and students thrive.

For more than a decade, Foundations for a Better Oregon — formally Chalkboard Project — has done this work, serving as a powerful catalyst in merging vision with action by shifting conversations from focusing on increasing funding for education to evidence-based discussions about educator quality, accountability, student achievement and improving student outcomes through innovative pilot projects and building greater accountability through data and research.

Today, Foundations for a Better Oregon is a highly respected organization with well-earned political capital, recognized for its independent and nonpartisan voice. This new iteration of the organization defines its strategic priorities by critical structural and cultural changes Oregon must make to disrupt the root causes of inequity and radically accelerate progress for children: In a better Oregon, research and data is community-centered; investments in education are equitable and coherent; and decision-making is inclusive and participatory.

You can learn more about Foundations for a Better Oregon here.

Foundations for a Better Oregon Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Amanda Manjarrez facilitates a workshop with community-based organizational leaders during Meyer’s 2019 Gathering for Student Success at PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) in Woodburn.

Foundations for a Better Oregon Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs Amanda Manjarrez facilitates a workshop with community-based organizational leaders during Meyer’s 2019 Gathering for Student Success at PCUN (Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste) in Woodburn.

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Myth: Disparities in education are not an issue of race but rather an issue of poverty

In partnership with Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens, Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio debunks incessant myths that act as barriers to education equity in Oregon. This blog is intended to provoke both thought and action, offering an opportunity to look beyond common myths and re-imagine a public education system rich in opportunity.

Historically, when issues of racial equity are talked about people will often say that the problem isn’t racism but rather that people of color are more likely to be poor and that any discrepancies that exist (either in terms of opportunities or outcomes) are more the result of poverty than race.

A study produced in Oregon by the Center to Advance Racial Equity compared racial groups within similar income categories to see what level of academic achievement was attained by each group.1 The findings showed that in Oregon, when comparing academic achievement of higher income students (wealthier students who do not qualify for free or reduced lunch subsidies) to other students, students of color were not as able to reach the same levels of academic success. And that “while income remains a protective factor for all student groups (meaning high income students do better than low income students), even economically advantaged students of color are, on average, unable to gain the educational results attained by economically advantaged white students.”2

Academic achievement differences were visible in elementary and middle schools, presenting about a 5 percentage point difference in test scores, both in English and math. In high school, the gap doubles and more affluent white students have test scores that are approximately 10 percentage points higher in both math and literacy. Graduation rates are also significantly better for white students, at 85 percent compared with 81 percent for students of color.3 In short, even among the more affluent students, students of color face barriers that interrupt their educational progress, while white students are able to take fuller advantage of the benefits of higher incomes.

The second study looked at these patterns across time and found that, in comparison with the 1950s and 1960s, there is in fact a reduction of the influence of race on student success and rising influence of family income.4 This insight does not invalidate the prior study, but it brings forward a troubling view that suggests progress has been made in reducing the influence of racism in student achievement.

But not so fast …

This isn’t much of a good news story. The main cause is that income inequality has been surging in the past 40 years and low income students increasingly are part of single parent families where fewer adults being present narrow the likelihood of enough time to support homework and reinforce academic needs. Also implicated is that students of color are increasingly likely to attend high poverty schools,5at levels eight to 10 times higher than that of white students.6 In essence, income inequality is outpacing the influence of racial dynamics. Racial disparities by income remain intact (as the first study indicates), though they have reduced over the past two generations, but inequities have worsened due to rising income inequality.

These data are important to disprove the idea that racial disparities are simply an indicator of more important consequences of inequality—income. These aren’t data that absolutely disprove that income matters more than race but are evidence that confirm beyond any doubt that a large comparative study of students is needed, collecting their racial and income demographics, tracking income changes and how that impacts their academic performance over time. Simply put: The study should track all students in a district or state and assess how incomes and race influence school performance. The current problem is that the education system does not track income, except for student eligibility for free and reduced lunch programs, which captures those with incomes up to about twice the poverty level.

Until this comparative study is done, we draw from the best available evidence that shows even affluent students of color still are unable to get the same level of academic achievement as their white counterparts. We ask that educators build the ability to shoulder the possibility that racism exists in their schools, classrooms and teaching. We also know that most people, including educators, do not want to believe themselves capable of racism, despite the fact that studies show 96 percent of educators hold unfavorable bias toward students of color.7 It’s easier to believe that educators fail students due to income barriers rather than race bias.

Is it really hard to believe that our schools are not performing well enough to support children of color and many educators deflect issues of race and redefine them as poverty or income related?

Frankly, it’s easier to think we fail students because they don’t have enough resources at home than because we educate white students better than students of color. The available research shows that racial equity and educational dimensions that include harmful elements of racism and white privilege must be the focus of school and education system reform efforts.


  1. Sinkey, A. & Curry-Stevens, A. (2015). Equity in education: Disaggregating student outcomes by race and income in Oregon. Portland, OR: Center to Advance Racial Equity, Portland State University. 

  2. P.36, in Sinkey, A. & Curry-Stevens, A. (2015). Equity in education: Disaggregating student outcomes by race and income in Oregon. Portland, OR: Center to Advance Racial Equity, Portland State University. 

  3. P.36, in Sinkey, A. & Curry-Stevens, A. (2015). Equity in education: Disaggregating student outcomes by race and income in Oregon. Portland, OR: Center to Advance Racial Equity, Portland State University. 

  4. Reardon, as cited by Bernhardt, P. (2013). The Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) Program: Providing cultural capital and college access to low-income students. School Community Journal, 23(1), 203-222. 

  5. Reardon, S. (2011). The widening academic achievement gap between the rich and the poor: New evidence and possible explanations. In G. Duncan & R Murnane (Eds.), Whither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools and children’s life chances (pp.91-116). New York: Russell Sage & Spencer Foundations. 

  6. Wise, T. (2016). What is your perception? Unpacking white privilege. At Teaching with Purpose. Portland, Oregon. 

  7. Clark, P., & Zygmunt, E. (2014). A close encounter with personal bias: Pedagogical implications for teacher education. The Journal of Negro Education, 83(2), 147–161. 

The Franklin High School Class of 2013, celebrating on graduation day. Photo credit: Matt Morton

The Franklin High School Class of 2013, celebrating on graduation day. Photo credit: Matt Morton

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ICYMI: Lane Community College’s Rites of Passage bolsters students of color

Lane Community College’s Rights of Passage program — a multicultural curriculum focused on serving students from African American, Asian, Pacific Islander, Latinx and Indigenous communities — increases participation and graduation rates for underserved middle and high school students of color in Lane County, encouraging them to learn more about their own cultural history, traditions, folklore, literature and heritage.

“What’s the importance of having an instructor, educational leader or other role model who looks like, talks like and comes from a similar background as their students?” asks journalist Alisha Roemeling in a Register-Guard article covering the Rights of Passage program based in south Eugene, Oregon:

“We provide [students] with the role models they need, like educators and other professionals in our community, to help them see that they can achieve great things too,” said Greg Evans, founder of Lane Community College’s Rites of Passage program. “They don’t see teachers and other support staff who look like them all day, every day at school, but they’re in this program and they come from the communities that they represent.”

Meyer's Equitable Education portfolio awarded a $185,000 three-year grant to support expansion of the Rites of Passage program. You can learn more about LCC’s Rites of Passage program here.

Jim Garcia, coordinator of Lane Community College’s Chicano/Latino Student Program, listens to a student while teaching. Photo credit: Andy Nelson at The Register-Guard

Jim Garcia, coordinator of Lane Community College’s Chicano/Latino Student Program, listens to a student while teaching. Photo credit: Andy Nelson at The Register-Guard

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Teachers are telling us something, let’s listen

On May 8, public school teachers across Oregon planned a walkout to advocate for more state funding. Districts responded by cancelling school for the day, adjusting calendars and, in the case of Portland Public Schools, demonstrating support for increased public education funding: “Our educators and students deserve better. It is long overdue that we prioritize schools in Oregon,” said Guadalupe Guerrero, Portland Public Schools superintendent.

As Oregon teachers continue to advocate for deeper investments in schools statewide, Meyer supports their efforts by investing in a system that not only guarantees teacher voice, but also sees it as a trusted, integral part of how schools operate and how students learn. As we elevate the voices of all teachers, Meyer is deeply committed to centering those who have been our communities’ most marginalized: teachers of color.

Meyer’s Focus

A key outcome for Meyer’s Equitable Education portfolio is diversifying Oregon’s public education workforce. Data show that racially diverse teachers have a significant positive impact on the achievement of priority students, specifically students of color, but we and others would argue all students benefit. The Oregon Legislature is seeing this need, too; the Joint Committee on Student Success is currently reviewing House Bill 2742, which directs the Department of Education to distribute grants for the purpose of developing and diversifying Oregon’s educator workforce, from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.

Meyer believes incorporating teacher voice is crucial to our state’s education puzzle. Legislation, district policies, grants and scholarships alone will not move the dial on our biggest challenges: We must build mechanisms designed for inclusion, created to recognize expertise where it exists and engendered to promote agency in determining the most effective solutions. Led by these principals, Meyer has sought opportunities to participate in education discussions centered on this topic. We discovered that those who are the most critical to defining challenges and creating solutions are often missing from the conversation entirely.

For Meyer to make informed decisions on investments that further our outcome of diversifying Oregon’s public education workforce, we needed to engage those closest to the subject. To do so, we connected with our statewide networks and gathered together teachers of color from across Oregon who are known equity champions in their schools and districts. This diverse group of 23 teachers of color discussed what brought them to teaching, what keeps them teaching and what daily challenges push them to consider leaving the profession. Most importantly, we discussed their recommendations for how public education in Oregon can attract, sustain and retain teachers of color.

The information below was collected during our gathering. It has informed Meyer’s present work and will serve as a guide for future investments.

Group Profile

Meyer’s Teachers of Color Gathering was facilitated by Zalika Gardner, a teacher of color who taught for more than 15 years and now serves as education director for KairosPDX — a school she co-founded in North Portland in 2012. The 23 participants were from different racial and ethnic groups and identified as Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, Latinx, Native American, South Asian and multiracial (identifying with two or more races). The educators’ experience teaching varied from less than five years to more than 20 years and one administrator with five years of experience. The teachers came from cities and school districts across Oregon: Portland, Hood River, Clackamas, Medford, Gresham, Eugene and Seaside. Most teachers had earned their teaching credentials in Oregon. The few who earned their credentials out of state earned them in California or New York. One participant was a credentialed teacher in Mexico but was not able to teach in Oregon without earning a master’s degree in education in the United States.

Many participants commented that they had never been in a space with such a diverse group of teachers, primarily folks of color. Those who had experienced a similar space said that it did not happen in Oregon. Within the first few hours of the gathering many teachers began to express that eight hours would not be enough time to grapple with the topics of the day. It was clear that the event itself was serving a crucial need for networking and relationship building among educators of color within Oregon.

What We Heard

Teachers of color are mission-driven. The core message from participants was their love for their students and communities compelled them into the teaching profession and that passion for their students and communities keeps them teaching and persevering through common challenges.

Throughout the gathering, four themes emerged as central to transforming Oregon’s public schools and education system into an institution that attracts and retains teachers of color:

  • Teacher preparation programs must do a better job of educating emerging, pre-service teachers in culturally affirming pedagogy. At the same time, programs must create honest and nurturing spaces for pre-service teachers of color to share experiences and build support networks with other teachers and mentors of color that will sustain them as they enter the teaching workforce and face biases on a daily basis. Key programs cited as exemplary: Sapsipkwala program, Portland Teachers Program, and the Bilingual Teacher Pathway program at Portland State University.
  • Excellent, culturally matched mentors matter. In almost every activity, the necessity and influence of effective mentorship surfaced as a central reason participants remained in teaching. Participants insisted that placing emerging teachers with content-specific and grade-level specific mentors who are honest, culturally empowering master teachers is critical to achieving and retaining a diversified teaching workforce.
  • Teachers of color need an organization that shares the values and concerns of diverse teachers. This idea emerged as a “collective” or hub that offers resources for professional coaching, mental health support, legal support, lobbying and advocacy services. Teachers of color don’t always feel represented by their unions; leadership is predominantly white and trails behind national educator organizations on issues of equity. Because the majority of Oregon’s teaching workforce is white, the union serves the agenda of the majority of its constituents. Some participants felt they were vulnerable to being marginalized, tokenized and forced to stay quiet when union decisions and actions put them directly at odds with the organization charged with representing them.
  • The higher you move up in education leadership in Oregon, the whiter the population becomes. Currently there are 197 superintendents across Oregon and just seven of them are leaders of color: Guadalupe Guerrero (PPS), Paul Coakley (Centennial), Danna Diaz (Reynolds), Katrise Perera (Gresham/Barlow), Gustavo Balderas (Eugene), Koreen N. Barreras-Brown (Colton) and George Mendoza (La Grande); less than 4% of district leaders. Oregon’s teachers of color rarely have leadership that understands what teaching or leading in a school building feels like as a person of color. The cohort of teachers identified more responsive, culturally affirming training for emerging school building administrators and thorough ongoing professional development and equity training for those already leading buildings. Teachers believed that school building leaders set the framework for cultural norms in the building. Thus, this is a crucial role, one that has an immense effect on whether or not a teacher of color remains a teacher. It’s important that these leaders know how to lead, affirm and develop a diverse teacher workforce.


Meyer’s Teachers of Color Gathering uncovered clear alignment in why participants chose the teaching profession: their love for their communities. Teachers also shared the central issue that challenges them to stay: biased co-teachers, building administrators and others openly dismissing, belittling, disparaging and underestimating teachers, children and families of color.

If we truly seek to create an educator workforce that reflects Oregon’s increasingly diverse student population, we must not only examine how we prepare and train teachers of color, but also radically reshape the expectations for pre-service white teachers and administrators. A training system that exposes and examines biases isn’t one class or a few discussions but a central area of mastery essential to becoming a teacher or administrator in the state of Oregon.

Next Steps

Meyer remains committed to elevating the voices of teachers and administrators of color. We will continue to work with this core group of educators to determine meaningful investments toward our outcome of sustaining and increasing Oregon’s education workforce diversity. Heeding the feedback we received from the first gathering, we will hold another gathering in winter 2019, bringing back this core group of educators and adding more, including administrators of color who are leading for equity. We also plan to connect pre-service teachers of color with this incredible collection of educators to promote networking and relationship building for these burgeoning teachers.

We look to our partners: Oregon Department of Education, Educator Advancement Council, Counsel of School Supervisors and Administrators, Oregon Education Association, Portland State University, University of Oregon, Western Oregon University, Chemeketa Community College, Columbia Gorge Community College and school districts around the state and others to share in our commitment. All Oregon’s public school students deserve an educator workforce that is representative of their communities in their school buildings and district offices, and we’ll work diligently to support those dedicated to this equitable goal.

— Bekah

Five educators participate in a group activity during Meyer’s 2018 Teachers of Color Gathering at Northwest Health Foundation.

Five educators participate in a group activity during Meyer’s 2018 Teachers of Color Gathering at Northwest Health Foundation.

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Sharpening focus on equitable education

The Equitable Education portfolio is excited to announce our 2019 Annual Funding Opportunity!

Meyer will invest approximately $3.55 million to advance our vision of eliminating predictable gaps and increasing opportunity for priority students in Oregon’s public schools.

This is the third round of annual funding for the Equitable Education portfolio. At the end of 2018, we awarded 40 grants out of 99 competitive applications. These grants reflected a mix of rural and urban organizations offering both a vision and approach to directly address educational disparities. Of primary importance was their collective belief that for Oregon to flourish, each student — regardless of race, ethnicity, family income, geography, disability, sexuality, gender identity or language — must have the opportunity to succeed in school. We are excited to see how this work flourishes over the next few years!

The Equitable Education portfolio will begin accepting applications on April 15, with a deadline of 5 p.m., on May 15, to accomplish one of the following Equitable Education funding goals:

  • Advance education equity through systems- and policy-level change
  • Improve priority student achievement and college and career readiness

Meyer has identified several intended outcomes under each of these two goals, and we invite you to take a deeper look at our funding goals and intended outcomes as you consider how your work aligns with the vision for this portfolio.

What did we learn from last year’s Annual Funding Opportunity?

The 2019 Annual Funding Opportunity represents a refinement of our framework based on current data as well as feedback we received from nonprofit and education partners. It's also designed to create what we believe to be the greatest opportunity to leverage Meyer's investments in education.

Although there might be modest adjustments to the Equitable Education goals and outcomes, equity remains central to all portfolio grantmaking. In 2019, successful applicants will continue to demonstrate a clear commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Through this lens, organizations will propose a vision and approach to analyzing and directly addressing education disparities experienced by our priority populations across Oregon. These students include:

  • English Language Learners (ELL)
  • First-generation college students
  • Indigenous students
  • Students of color
  • Students with disabilities
  • Students in or aging out of foster care
  • Students living on low-incomes
  • LGBTQ students

After our experience last year, we decided to re-release a visual guide to clarify what fits within the scope of our portfolio. The "fit flowchart" gives a broad overview to see if your work would generally fit within the scope of the portfolio; a companion piece to this is a one-page "insights" document that answers some common questions addressing application competitiveness. You can view that resource here.

What doesn't fit within the Equitable Education portfolio

The Equitable Education portfolio team values the essential work occurring every day across the education continuum and we recognize that preparing an application requires a considerable investment of time and resources by an organization. Insights from last year have provided us with a clear perspective on what doesn't fit within the Equitable Education portfolio:

  • Education programs with universal, one-size-fits-all strategies not specifically designed for priority students, regardless of school, district or regional demographics.
  • Direct early education services; we will, however, support students during the transition between early education programs and kindergarten as well as preparing public schools to offer a smooth transition from home to school.
  • Strategies to address college retention and completion; however, we are interested in supporting efforts that smooth the transition between high school, or equivalent, and college and/or career.
  • K-12 private schools.
  • New or expanded programming developed without meaningful engagement with the priority population it is intended to impact.
  • Environmental education programming not specifically designed to meet the academic, social or cultural needs of priority students.

Learn more

The Equitable Education team has conducted information webinars in which we shared insights into what fits within the scope of the portfolio; introduced our priority populations; provided additional information about our vision, goals and outcomes for eliminating gaps and increasing opportunities for students; and much more.

Finally, we've organized a set of Applicant Resources to make the process easier. You'll find additional information, tools and advice on topics ranging from diversity, equity and inclusion to Meyer's definition of collaborations.

We look forward to working with you in the coming year, apply soon!


Photo caption: a young woman with cornrows completes a math equation.
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ICYMI: Multnomah County Library deepens commitment to serving Black families

Multnomah County Library has launched a new initiative to eliminate barriers to access and opportunity to better serve African and African American families living in Multnomah County.

A news release highlights Multnomah County Library’s initiative to strengthen connections with Black families:

This initiative aims to build momentum and capacity for the library to enact systemic changes that better serve Black families through community action research, a methodology that helps researchers work in partnership with community stakeholders to develop solutions to local problems.


Community action research will engage with African and African-American families to understand and address barriers and inequities related to kindergarten readiness and transition. Research has shown that Black children often face disparities in school readiness, which signal disparate educational, economic and social outcomes later in life.

Data and research collection are primary tools in ensuring equitable participation in education systems and improving alignment between communities and education institutions. Meyer's Equitable Education portfolio awarded a $148,000 two-year grant to support Multnomah County Library's efforts to transform its work and strengthen connections with African and African American communities.

Photo caption: The entrance to Multnomah County Library.
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ICYMI: Opinion – Looking to Finland to improve Oregon’s schools

In early November, four public education leaders from Oregon — including Meyer's Equitable Education portfolio director Matt Morton, The Chalkboard Project executive director Whitney Grubbs, KairosPDX executive director Kali Thorne Ladd and Future School Lab founder Vanessa Wilkins — journeyed to Finland in search of solutions to improve schools and outcomes for students within the state.

While abroad, they participated in both Helsinki Education Week and the HundrED Innovation Summit. A new op-ed in The Oregonian highlights learnings from their journey:

Through this experience, we served as teachers as well as students. As a largely homogenous country, Finland admits challenges in meeting the needs of its rapidly growing immigrant population. We proudly shared stories about Oregon’s rich diversity, our focus on data to identify and understand disparities and the deep collaborations between public, private and civic sectors. We highlighted “bright spots,” such as KairosPDX’s model for culturally responsive teaching for African American children, Chalkboard Project’s work to support and elevate teachers, and the Meyer Memorial Trust’s transformation to more equitable and strategic grantmaking.

You can read the entire piece here.

Oregon education leaders journey to Finland in search of solutions to improve schools and student success

A collage of photos taken at Kulosaari Secondary School and Rajakylän koulu (Vantaa) in Finland.

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Spotlight on male Latino educators: Portland Public Schools’ Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero

Welcome to part two of the Equitable Education portfolio's three-part series focused on Latino male educators.

According to the most recent Oregon Statewide Report Card, 22.6 percent of Oregon's public school students are Latinx while only 4.5 percent of Oregon teachers match these students. That gap in visual and cultural representation in our classrooms contributes to the persistent achievement gap for Latinx students as compared with their white peers. This lack of diverse representation is consistent throughout Oregon's education leadership.

Earlier this year, I sat down with Portland Public Schools' (PPS) new superintendent, Guadalupe Guerrero, just one of three male Latino superintendents scattered across Oregon's 198 districts, to talk about the journey to his current leadership position as well as his hopes for a more diverse and representative Oregon education workforce. The superintendent took the helm of PPS just after the 2017-18 school year began and recently celebrated the completion of his first school year with graduates around the district.

Superintendent Guerrero often shares his belief in student-focused leadership, but for Oregon's Latino boys and young men, he may represent a specific hope for the future. In the Education Week article linked in the first blog of this series, one of the students interviewed said, "You can't be what you can't see." The superintendent is making himself visible and providing a leadership model for all students in the district, with a keen eye on empowering Latinx students.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero speaking
2018 Statewide MEChA Conference at Lincoln High School

Like other students of color, Latinx students are lagging behind in achievement and graduation rates across the state and country: 69.4 percent of Latinx students in Oregon graduate on time as compared with 76.6 percent of white students. Recently, as the keynote speaker at the Mente Summit, an event created to inspire male Latino students through role models and mentorship to graduate and pursue higher education, Superintendent Guerrero encouraged the young men in attendance to work hard for their dreams and reassured them that success should never mean leaving behind their culture. In the current political climate, that's a powerful message that is in many ways contradictory to messaging they may receive in some of their schools and greater communities. This interview has been edited.

Bekah Sabzalian:

How did you find support as a young male Latino teacher? Do you think the needs of male Latinos differ from other teacher candidates, teachers and administrators?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

When I entered education, it was as a classroom aide [paraprofessional] and serving in a community where I lived alongside students. I shopped at the same markets, went to the same laundromats, ate at the same places. For me, working in schools was and is about serving the community.

As far as the question around the needs of male Latinos, I think that many of the supports and needs are the same that any new teacher would have. Hopefully, there's mentorship, there's district and building support, there's coaching available to all of our new educators. But hopefully, we're putting an especially mindful eye on our new professionals that may feel more isolated or feel a little bit of a cultural disconnect when they're working in a school where they may represent the only adult of color in that community.

Bekah Sabzalian:

Since moving to Oregon you tweeted, "Can we increase efforts to better ensure there are more teachers and educational leaders of color in the state of Oregon? We need to effectively recruit, prepare, hire and support diverse candidates." What are your ideas for getting this work done?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

There are some proven strategies we should be incorporating, here in Portland Public Schools, everywhere, especially in urban school districts. There's a diversity that exists with support staff or paraprofessionals. This is the group of employees that's the most embedded and familiar with the community; they're very known to the families and the students. We should encourage them to get their certifications, and we should support them.

School districts should be working closely with all of their surrounding higher education institutions. I've made it a real priority to get very familiar with all of the local university presidents and college of education deans. I've now met with all of them, and my line of questioning is similar when I first meet with them: "Tell me about the connective tissue between your institution and PPS. Tell me about your teacher education program. Tell me how you recruit, what kind of candidates you're looking for? How are you promoting diversity in those programs?" Because I well understand, if candidates of color are not completing their programs, then I'm not going to have a pool in the end.

Also, I've led in school districts where we partner with universities to create an urban teacher residency program. That's another pool of folks who, in partnership with the colleges, we're able to embed in our schools and have the benefit of a full-time resident working under a mentor teacher while they're going about their studies. Generally, a principal will have a resident working under a teacher in their school; then something opens up, somebody retires, the resident teacher tends to be the natural candidate for a slot because they're already woven into the fabric of the school. Urban teacher residency programs and other residency programs like that featured in the article are very important components.

We can also start at the high school level. We think of traditional career and technical education (CTE) programs, but you can create one for teachers, too. Here, students are getting that experience while in high school, learning about some of the pedagogy that drives the profession and finding on-ramps into some of those higher education programs. You see a lot of college of education deans now rethinking how you get a four-year education degree and certificate. I think that's forward thinking. I think it's tough for folks that are contemplating the profession to do another year of graduate study. The tuition and the investment of time it takes can be a barrier when you're not necessarily entering a high-paying career. I think if this country had its priorities right, it would emphasize the importance of public education. We would think about how to incentivize the career for talented individuals, those who are fantastic with kids but just can't afford to make teaching a career.

Bekah Sabzalian:

Recently, a PPS high school student of color asked you at City Club about diversifying the teacher workforce before he graduates. You responded that education leaders must move carefully to ensure that implementation is effective. How do you balance the urgency of the issue, clearly demonstrated by this passionate student, with careful implementation that often takes a great deal of time?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

First of all, I applaud that student for bringing it up and for having the agency to say, "I know you're building a school system out, and I want to experience and get a taste of that before I walk across the stage."

How do you balance the urgent with systemic building? There are some pools where educators or support staffs of color do exist. What I would say is, how do we begin to identify some of those individuals and elevate their visibility for our students? We see some small examples of that happening now. I'm very interested in seeing how do we take that paraprofessional who is very dynamic, who has great relationships with the students and the families, and involve them in visible positions? Like student advisers, student success coaches, how can we have them lead culturally specific student unions? We should have them lead affinity groups so that we increase the access that students may have to adults of color who work in their school communities.

That's one immediate mechanism we might be able to move on more rapidly so that the student doesn't have to wait for a chance to work with diverse educators. We have a number of schools that are piloting that work.

Bekah Sabzalian:

The article talked about the barriers male Latino teachers face, one of them being community perceptions of low pay, lack of visibility and a knowledge gap around advancement opportunities. What do you see as significant barriers to creating a steady pipeline of Latino male teachers?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

When you bring up community perceptions of the profession, that doesn't necessarily only apply to future educators of color. I think the education profession in this country certainly doesn't always carry the level of status or commensurate compensation that we say is important when they're serving our children. So there's that, then you layer on top of that educators of color, or college graduates of color, who we already know don't represent a high percentage of those who finish higher ed. They're posed with a question, internally, around, "What are my career choices going to be?" Often times, they're first in their families to graduate college, so when they're faced with making a choice like that, I think, in many families, they tend to lean the conversation toward certain vocations. Teaching doesn't tend to, unfortunately, come up first. For those with a Latino background, we know that in Latin American countries, "El Maestro" carries not just a term of endearment, but a pretty high level of esteem. There is certainly some respect for the profession.

But it is a challenge. How do we not only encourage more college graduates to consider the profession, but how do you attract graduates of color to entertain the idea of serving, often times in an underserved community, with students who perhaps might look like them?

Bekah Sabzalian:

Statistically, there are not many Latinx professionals serving as principals or in district leadership roles. What was the push that made you make that leap into administration?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

I have to say part of what drew me to education was that I didn't generally have a positive K-12 experience. Starting off as a young teacher, I didn't generally have a positive experience. In this profession, one can't help but notice that things could be a lot better. I think what sustained me through those early years is a feeling of fortification and nourishment from the community around me. I was a Spanish bilingual teacher. Naturally, the 30 fourth- and fifth-grade kids in my combination class, they all looked like me as did all of their parents. For me, I felt good about the teaching and learning experience that I was able to provide. Those were sort of the best years of my career in some ways, were my first years as a teacher. I know people often say those are the toughest years. I can tell you my first year as a teacher was by far my best year. I just had a great time. I loved the connections with my students and their families.

When I made the decision to move into administration, there weren't a lot of Latino principals but I knew some and I knew they were doing good work and I appreciated hearing about their experience. I think part of it is, we apply a lot of these characteristics to our Latino students; in many ways they're similar to Latino young professionals. There's a certain tenacity, persistence and grit that exists in the community. We tend to only use those words with people of color, but we're used to modeling those characteristics.

Bekah Sabzalian:

What supports would be helpful as more diverse educators take the leap into administration and district leadership?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

We need monthly dinners for our new administrators. Let's bring together our first-year principals, especially those of color, and make sure they're there. Reach out, give them that personal invite and let's order pizza and talk about how it's going. Let's talk about what the challenges have been, what's going well, and let's talk about some of the "just in time" learning the districts can provide for them. You're coming up on evaluation season or budget development time or hirings. We need to make sure to give you white-glove service all the way through.

Sometimes new educational leaders may be a little shy to raise their hand and express, "I don't know how to do this." Maybe it goes back to some of the persistence mindset like, "I'll just figure it out." We don't want any of our folks to work in isolation. We want them to feel very supported in this already challenging work.

Bekah Sabzalian:

To end things out, I'm wondering, what has kept you in education all these years?

Guadalupe Guerrero:

Well, public education still has not guaranteed the opportunity that it promises to students of color. They continue to represent the bottom end of a very persistent achievement and opportunity gap. There is a lot of important work that remains to be institutionalized. We need to reimagine public education so that it serves all students, all diverse learners. Not just kids of color, kids with disabilities, kids who are language learners, immigrant students, historically underserved kids.

We have not yet delivered on that promise and what keeps me motivated is to do my part, to try to be the best servant leader that I can be to elevate this, both as an important topic and also to concretely do something about it. There's something fundamentally wrong with the system when you see the kind of disproportionality that affects our students of color. They're the most often referred to the office, they're the most often suspended, they're most often the ones who drop out, they're most often the ones who are not prepared when they enter kindergarten.

Our new teachers are less likely to look like our students. It's hard to find principals to lead our communities of color who are themselves diverse. We are in the state of Oregon where out of 198 school districts there are only two other Latino male superintendents in this entire state. It's no different when you look at the 10,000 school districts in America.

I think it's important to make sure that the demographic is more representative of a country where our students are increasingly of diverse backgrounds to raise the lens and sensitivity to the needs of students, to approach this work in a more culturally responsive way. I am here, taking up the challenge, doing my part in a school system that unfortunately demonstrates many of the same patterns and see if we might disrupt that. Key to the work is joining hands with a lot of partners and supporters who are like minded and who see that serving our children is of the greatest importance. That can't be just a conversation, that can't be something that maybe happens 10 years from now, but something we can do today, tomorrow and begin to put into place networks of support for our students and our educators who are motivated to serve our students of color to be more successful. That doesn't mean you have to be a person of color to contribute to that. We just have to share the same equity and social justice commitment.

–– Bekah

In this interview, Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero uses the term Latinos when speaking about the entire community. At Meyer, we often use Latinx as an alternative to Latino or Latina to refer to people of Latin American descent. Latino male specifically references males from the Latinx community.

Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero
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Spotlight on male Latino educators: Marty Perez

A key outcome for the Equitable Education portfolio is increasing workforce diversity in public K-12 education. We're always on the lookout for research and programs with the ability to grow our knowledge about this important equity issue. That's why an article from ED Weekly focused on building a pipeline of male Latino educators caught our attention. The article highlighted barriers that male Latino teacher candidates face when deciding to enter a teacher preparation program, challenges they may face while teaching within the education system and targeted programs designed to support their success. Latinx students make up about 25 percent of our student body nationwide, but only 2 percent of our teachers are male and Latino. In this blog series, inspired by creating a more reflective education workforce, I'll share recent interviews I've had the privilege to engage in focused on the unique experiences and perspectives of male Latino educators in Oregon. All the interviewees for the series are male Latinos, spanning the education profession but with commonality in their purpose and struggles. We hope by sharing their stories and their insights, we'll be able to draw attention to the great value male Latino educators bring to public education and help to spark conversation around the state toward recruitment and retention of this rare and impactful population of educators.

The first interviewee in our series is Marty Perez. Marty is an accomplished educator; he's been teaching for almost a decade at both the middle and high school levels. He is dedicated to the teaching profession, dual immersion programming and closing the achievement gap. He is vice chair of the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission representing secondary educators and serves on the Oregon Governor's Council on Educator Advancement, where his valuable insights helped to shape the council's November 2016 report. The son of a Mexican American immigrant and a Klamath tribal member, Marty has spent his life navigating a bicultural, bilingual family while striving to promote academic excellence through Latino and Native representation in our public schools. Currently he teaches high school Spanish in the Portland area. This interview has been edited.


Bekah Sabzalian:

What inspired you to enter teaching?


Marty Perez:

I was about ready to finish my undergraduate degree in 2008, and I was looking for my next chapter, my next step. I had spent all this time and energy into a four-year degree in Spanish literature. I got a minor in business, and then I got a second minor in economics. I was very vulnerable about my next stage in life, and thankfully, I heard about the Sapsikwala teacher training program at the University of Oregon. I decided, "Hey, I could be an educator. I could be a teacher, and I think that I could be a pretty successful Spanish teacher." That is exactly what I did. I applied for this federally funded program and received a letter confirming my admittance.

That was when all the chips were in for me to become an educator. I decided that if somebody was going to pay for me to be a teacher, if somebody was going to invest in me for a certain mission or a vision, then I'm going to try to hold true to their investment for as long as I possibly can. I was committed to teaching in schools with Native American populations. I've taught in Alaska, California and Oregon.

Another moment when I knew education could be a calling was when I was a sophomore and junior in high school. I used to tutor fifth- and sixth-graders through the 21st Century Community Learning Program, which used federal money to provide supplemental resources to students in the areas of math and English, and I enjoyed it. It was maybe one and a half, two hours after school. I was making enough money in that moment to pay for my car payments and some gas, and I felt like it gave me this experience that wasn't too formal. I was able to interact with kids on a different level, that wasn't this teacher level. I felt like I had ways to communicate the tricks to navigate certain benchmarks, or content standards, or whatever the function may be; I felt that I was able to convey a message that it was attainable.


Bekah Sabzalian:

It sounds like when you decided to pursue teaching, it was in a supportive program.



You know, I really read through the Sapsikwala mission statement and materials; my experience echoed 90 percent of the statistics that were stated. Growing up in small rural town, Tulelake, Calif., I had zero educators of color. To reference the Ed Weekly article, I could really relate to the teacher, Angel Magana, making a connection with other people of color in the school building who are not in an educator role. My mom was an instructional assistant, or a teacher's assistant, who worked in the school system: In my eyes, the roles that people of color are carrying out in schools, day-in and day-out, are just as important as a teacher, principal or politician. Without them and their work, the school environment would not function.

In the graduate program, we were a cohort within a cohort. Thankfully I had that experience. I just felt like when I was in the Sapsikwala program, there were some twenty-odd Native American educators who were pursuing the same dream, trying to envision the same mission that was set before them. That support definitely led to my success.



Once you became a teacher, how did you find support?



As a first-time Spanish teacher, I was living in Anchorage, 3,000 miles away from everything I was familiar with. I quickly became friends with the school secretary, the custodial staff, the people who were holding down the "service" positions within the school. That made my time there bearable. I also was a very gregarious person; I reached across different departments and found friends in the math, special education and English departments. I tried to make sure that everybody knew that I was here to not only be an educator, but also to make those connections that would ultimately make me feel like I belonged in the building. They did an excellent job at Mears Middle School in Anchorage.

But if we were to analyze the teaching staff by race, there were only a handful of educators of color among close to 80 staff members. Most of the them were working in the world language department and or in the Indian education program.



I love that example about how you just built community so you could stay.



And I had to.



You're from a culturally and racially blended family. How has that affected your approach to teaching?



My dad worked in agriculture for 30 years. My mom, the only one of eight in a Native American household who graduated high school, has been extremely impactful. They've both affected my approach to teaching because I feel like their stories are often left out of text books; they're left out of examples; they're left out of conveying a message that the work that they put in to the system is ultimately as important as any other profession out there. I will often reference my dad and my mom when I teach and when I bring up certain concepts, especially talking about strict parents or Latino experiences. My students truly understand and love and have validation from that perspective.



Your mom is from a Native tribe and your dad was born in Mexico?



My mom, myself and my daughter, we are from the Klamath tribes. We're of the Modoc Tribe, and my dad is from a little, little place in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. His town is called El Mezquite Grande. He came when he was 12 or 13 to the United States and has been working in agriculture ever since. He taught himself how to be a mechanic. He can barely read or write but he can tear apart huge heavy machinery and diagnose a problem and fix it. He is self taught, which is incredible. Such resilient genes reside in myself and my daughter, but don't ask me to fix anything. I will save that for the experts.



What's kept you in education all these years? What makes you hopeful for Oregon's education system?



You know, I will say, I always think back to the Sapsikwala program and their vision and mission of getting indigenous educators inside classrooms to teach indigenous students and other students of color in a way that is missed by the majority of the teaching field. I wanted to stay true to the mission, and they invested a lot of money in me to become an educator. Even though they only asked us to make our repayment for a few years after we received our degree and our license, I sometimes have a hard time letting go because somebody has invested money in me. I was given an opportunity, and I feel grateful for it.

I also feel like what keeps me in my current position is my department. I couldn't ask for a better department, and when we spoke about my community that I formed in Alaska, I've been creating this community in every position since. I feel like I have a community at my high school. I don't have to explain myself when I am upset regarding something I just heard or some micro-aggression that I just had to deal with. They get it, and they don't only get it in real life, but they're able to convey that "it" in a different language as well. I think it's remarkable to know that the community, the department, has helped me stay in a difficult environment.

What originally hooked me at my school has kept me there: the students. I saw a lot of students of color who were poor on the socioeconomic scale, but they were rich in knowledge and they were so wealthy with grit and they wanted so much for their family. They wanted so much for their community, and they were determined to get it. Knowing that I helped them keeps me hopeful and fuels my desire to continue in the teaching profession.



How do you help your students navigate experiences that they have, that they feel are discriminatory or they feel are microaggressions?



I've had a lot of students come up to me, and they say, "I see you as that angry uncle who will go to bat for us. I see you as that strict father that we know, if we step out of line, we will get reprimanded or get corrected in some way." I will put my title on the line when it comes to helping students sort and navigate a system that was not designed for them.

I have many students bringing problems and dilemmas to me that are often never repeated to anybody else, other than maybe their parents. They share with me and I bring it to my administrator's attention, and I think it's important for them to know that they have an advocate, an ally and a teacher on their side. I won't be the one to tell them, "I think you're stepping in the wrong direction or you're overreacting to something that wasn't meant to be big." I will always try to validate their perspective and their concern. I try to give them the tools that they need to be successful, in order to graduate on time.



We have big gaps, right? We have made some progress but the achievement gaps between students of color, English Language Learners, students with disabilities, they've remained consistent. We've never reached a point where we've had a representative teacher workforce that matches the students. But we do know that where there are highly skilled representative teachers, there is positive achievement for students of color. We do know representation and culturally responsive teaching works, we just haven't gotten there yet.



I think that a lot of what is achieved by having students taught by educators of color is often something that is hard to measure. How do we measure that positive cultural shift? How do we measure the ability to reflect on your own person, see a teacher leader who looks like you, can understand your struggles and because of this, know that you're not confined to entry-level positions?

I feel like I would have been content working alongside my dad in the fields and his message to us always was, "Don't ever feel like this work that I do is below you." It is something that is needed, and my dad is probably one of my biggest fans.

I remember when I graduated with my bachelor's degree, he used to tell everybody, "Oh my son's a licenciado." Licenciado has a double meaning: It could be a lawyer or just somebody who has a formal degree. It was almost like that was his entry point into many conversations. "My son is a licenciado; he has this degree." I carry my dad and his story with me, on my shoulders, and I guess he vicariously tells his story through me.

It's beautiful to know that there are so many stories out there in this world that have never been told, they've never been taught in a public forum. It is disheartening and it's sad that classrooms have excluded the stories, cultures and histories of so many of our students. I think all kids, regardless of color, deserve to hear these diverse stories and they also deserve to be taught by a qualified individual who loves their job, a teacher who's passionate about kids and what they bring to the table.



Thank you for doing what you do, Marty!

A quote from Marty Perez: I think that a lot of what is achieved by having students taught by educators of color is often something that is hard to measure. How do we measure that positive cultural shift? How do we measure the ability to reflect on your own person, see a teacher leader who looks like you, can understand your struggles and because of this, know that you’re not confined to entry-level positions?

Marty Perez is an accomplished educator; he’s been teaching for almost a decade at both the middle and high school levels. He is dedicated to the teaching profession, dual immersion programming and closing the achievement gap.

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