Nearly two-thirds of the credentialed staff at Jefferson Union High School District is white. Less than 11 percent of staff is Latino. Eight percent of the teachers are Asian. Meanwhile, only 14 percent of the student body is Caucasian. Nearly a third of students are Filipino, yet only 8 percent of the teachers are. Thirty percent of the kids are Latino; only 10 percent of the teachers share that ethnicity. And the numbers are even more stark in the Pacifica School District, where 84 percent of the teachers are white.

It doesn’t take a statistician to know that those numbers don’t add up.

That stark contrast between the ethnicity of students and teachers, and the inability of local school districts to attract and retain people of color, were highlighted in a San Mateo County civil grand jury report released late last week. The report, titled “Building a racially and ethnically diverse teaching workforce: A challenge for our schools,” posits that students of color deserve role models who look like them, and that the student body as a whole would benefit for having educators who come from different backgrounds. There is a raft of research to support that conclusion, but all you really have to do is ask a student who has perhaps never seen anyone like him teaching math or history.

Pacifica schools are no more or less challenged than others; across the county, more than 70 percent of the students are members of minority groups while more than 70 percent of teachers are white.

To understand why, harken back to the usual underlying problems in the Bay Area. Relatively higher wages for teachers are nonetheless not keeping up with the high cost of living. Talented teachers can make more in other local industries and often leave not because they don’t have a passion for the kids but because they have to make ends meet. Further complicating the issue: California law prohibits affirmative action hiring programs that could address the inequity.

There are some innovative ideas floating around. For instance, the Jefferson Union High School District, which includes Pacifica’s two public high schools, is already building affordable housing for its teachers. Others are working with colleges to offer incentives to teachers who might diversify the pool. Some are formalizing mentorship programs so that teachers of color feel appreciated and guided.

The issue almost gained traction nationally with the Teacher Diversity and Retention Act of 2019. However, that failed to get out of the House of Representatives. While it didn’t become law, its conclusions were obvious and important: a diverse teaching profession improves educational outcomes, students of color are more likely to close the achievement gap when they have teachers who look like them, and all students benefit from a diversity of thought.

We don’t yet know precisely how the public health crisis will play out now that another school year is upon us. It may be harder than ever before to attract talent to our local classrooms. Or perhaps there is an opportunity here to fill openings with bright, innovative people who look a lot more like the people they are trying to teach.

— Clay Lambert

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