Study calls for more support for superintendents of color
Gresham-Barlow Acting Superintendent James Hiu works with first grader Mirna Ibrahim on her art project Tuesday in Gresham. (Photo by Jake Arnold, OSBA)
When Acting Superintendent James Hiu entered a Gresham-Barlow first-grade classroom Tuesday, the students weren’t sure who he was.
“The president?” guessed one boy.
They could tell he was important, though, and in charge. Hiu, who is of Asian and Pacific Island descent, sets a leadership diversity example. Researchers say such school leaders of color positively affect academic achievement and social and emotional learning for students of color as well as their white peers.
The already minuscule number of Oregon superintendents of color plunged this year, though. A study released Thursday, “Exploring the Lived Experiences of Superintendents of Color in Oregon,” offered recommendations for hiring and retaining superintendents of color. School boards are the gatekeepers.
The survey followed closely behind a study of female superintendents. Both studies found overt bias and concluded a need for more support, especially from school boards.
The reports have prompted soul-searching among many school board members. Education advocates, including OSBA and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators, have identified the report as a call for action and are taking steps to implement its recommendations.
OSBA, COSA and the Oregon Department of Education commissioned the superintendents of color study. The report’s authors said it is one of the largest studies of its kind of superintendents of color.
Education Northwest researchers surveyed 16 current and former Oregon superintendents of color. They shared mixed experiences with job preparation and support and told of racism, disrespect, stress and threats of violence. Some superintendents described school board support as inconsistent and unreliable, often precariously dependent on the issues, individual relationships and the changing board makeup. The survey participants’ identities were hidden partly because superintendents worried about career repercussions.
OSBA Board President Scott Rogers said it is a “tragedy” that superintendents fear the possible reactions, considering that school boards rely on them to guide equity improvement efforts.
Rogers said that as a white male he cannot pretend to fully understand the challenges faced by superintendents of color, especially women, but that it is imperative that he listen and ask himself what he can do to address those obstacles.
“Board members owe it to them … to read the study and really take it to heart,” he said.
Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, president of OSBA’s Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus, said the report calls for urgent action by all school board members.
“No one should abdicate that responsibility if we want to do what is best for the kids,” said Al-Abdrabbuh, the Corvallis School Board chair.
The study’s focus on recruiting, hiring and retaining superintendents of color leans heavily on increasing training for school board members, especially new ones, to understand their roles and responsibilities and how to support administrators of color. A bill proposed for the 2022 Legislature and supported by OSBA would address that with mandatory training.
Rogers, the Athena-Weston School Board chair, said the report pushed him to consider how the demographic makeup of students is represented in educators and administrators in his region. He said teacher recruitment and professional development need to be priorities to create pipelines for future leaders.
Oregon’s student population is nearly 40% students of color, but only 12% of teachers and 13% of administrators identify as people of color. Less than 5% of superintendents are people of color.
Oregon hit a highwater mark of 17 superintendents of color in 2019-20, according to the 2020 Oregon Educator Equity Report. Oregon now has nine school district and education service district superintendents of color: six Latinos, two African Americans and one Asian/Pacific Islander, with six of them male.
The study is heavy on recommendations for increasing professional support. Superintendents say mentors, affinity groups, professional networks and personal connections help them with the job’s demands.
The study also calls for safety plans for superintendents of color. Following state and district policies has led to public backlash in recent years.
The overt racism described in the study is “unsettling and disheartening” but not necessarily surprising, said Oregon Association of Latino Administrators President Sarita Amaya.
“That should be a wake-up call for Oregon,” she said. “White allies should take this as an opportunity to think about ‘What can we do?’”
COSA Executive Director Craig Hawkins said the study also highlights how superintendents of color have shown resilience and their commitment to students.
“In the face of all this, they continue to lead and do great work,” he said.
La Grande School Board Chair Robin Maille said the study opened her eyes some and made her want to check in more with Superintendent George Mendoza, who is of Mexican descent.
“I want to keep him happy, or we have to find another superintendent,” she said. “There is no guarantee we would get one as good.”
She credits Mendoza with increasing staff diversity and helping the district work through equity issues while improving students’ academic performance.
Mendoza, for his part, said he feels respected, valued and understood by the community and the school board. He said when he applied for the job, he made clear his values, his vision and who he is.
He said they told him they wanted him to be that person.
“That alone is very empowering,” he said.
Traniece Brown-Warrens of the Oregon Alliance of Black School Educators said helping administrators of color feel embraced is crucial.
“Do I want to take a job where I feel like I have to fight the board, fight the people, all the time because of the color of my skin?” said Brown-Warrens.
Tanisha Tate Woodson, who has a doctorate in social welfare policy, is one of the study’s authors. She said the answers boil down to relationships: with board members, with community members, with staff and with mentors and support networks.
Hiu has worked in the Gresham-Barlow School District for 19 years, the past eight as a deputy superintendent. The district is nearly 50% students of color, mostly Latino. Hiu said he stands as a symbol of what students of color can aspire to.
On Jan. 13, the school board began negotiations to change Hiu’s role as acting superintendent to simply “superintendent.” He would be the district’s second consecutive superintendent of color.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA