Guadalupe Guerrero, left, is superintendent of Portland Public Schools, and one of just nine school superintendents of color in the state. (Portland Bureau of Transportation/Flickr)

Despite an increasingly diverse student population, leaders in Oregon’s school districts remain overwhelmingly white. 

A new study set out to understand the challenges of school superintendents of color, why there are so few superintendents of color in Oregon, and why they quit their jobs. It was done by the non-profit Education Northwest and commissioned by the Oregon School Boards Association, the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators and the state Education Department. 

There are 219 school districts and education service districts in Oregon. Nearly 40% of Oregon’s approximately 560,000 students are racially, ethnically or linguistically diverse, according to the report.

They are served by just nine superintendents of color, down from 14 last year. 

State Education Director Colt Gill described the reduction in such superintendents as a “highly concerning free fall,” according to the report, which was issued Thursday.

The nine superintendents represent 4% of all the superintendents in the state. There would have to be 80 school superintendents of color to match the student population makeup.

Leaders of color in school districts are vital to attracting and retaining diverse principals, teachers and other staff, according to a report in the Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching, and Research. Having teachers from diverse backgrounds is good for all students, but particularly important for students of color, that report said.  

To better understand the challenges they face, researchers interviewed 16 current and former superintendents. All had at least 20 years of experience in education. The report said about a dozen identified as Latino or Hispanic and another five identified Black or African American.

Former superintendents said they left because of racism, discrimination, impacts of the pandemic, issues with their teachers’ union, political controversies, harsher performances reviews and scrutiny than their white peers or a lack of mentoring.

Of nine current superintendents interviewed for the study, nearly half had been in their current job for less than a year, and just one had been on the job for more than five years. 

One current superintendent with over 30 years of experience spoke of the isolation school superintendents of color feel. 

“When we talk about back in the day, what supports, I kind of didn’t have support. I mean, it was pretty lonely,” the superintendent said to researchers.

When Black students are taught by even just one Black teacher between third and fifth grades, they’re less likely to drop out of high school and to attend college, according to the report. 

“For our education system to make progress on racial equity, we have to address the underlying issues that prevent us from attracting and retaining leaders and educators of color,” according to an email to Capital Chronicle from Guadalupe Guerrero, Portland Public Schools superintendent.

He called on districts to hire superintendents who reflect the diversity of the students they serve. 

In Oregon, about one out of 10 teachers are people of color. 

Danna Diaz has been superintendent for the Reynolds School District in Fairview, just north of Gresham, for the last four years. She said she decided to become a principal when she saw the way white teachers spoke to her Spanish-speaking parents as she was growing up in Texas.

“I wanted to become a superintendent when I saw how the other principals spoke to the Black and Brown kids in my district,” she said. 

The current and former superintendents interviewed for the report described loneliness, having equity and anti-racism work stymied or not taken seriously and being pigeon-holed into doing all of the equity work because they were the one person of color in the room.

“I know that [the board] loved me, but I also know that I was the constant reminder – even just walking in the room – that I’m equity focused or equity driven, and they don’t want to give up their power to someone like me,” one former superintendent told researchers.

Issues around safety, being respected and taken seriously were heightened for female superintendents of color, one of whom quit because of threats to her and her family. 

Researchers recommended that districts devise a safety plan for their superintendents of color, who are more prone to face political and racial hostility, according to the report.  

All of the women interviewed held doctoral degrees, encouraged to earn them by mentors and others who advised that they would need higher credentialing than their male peers to be considered for jobs. 

Diaz said when she was a principal in a Texas school district and considering becoming a superintendent, another principal told her, “As a woman of color no one will look at your resume unless they know you have a PhD.” 

When she later applied to become a superintendent in a small district in the San Juan Islands in Washington, she was told she was overqualified. She was hired, however.

“I’ve had my superintendent’s license since 1999,” she said. “It took 16 years to get to a superintendent’s position.”

The report recommended that school organizations in Oregon recruit more people of color into teaching jobs to start them on a track to the top job and increasing the role of universities in teaching future generations of school leaders. 

The report also recommended that districts hire recruiters to find more diverse candidates and help those candidates get training about the role of superintendent. The school organizations also were encouraged to see that school board members receive diversity and equity training, including lessons on state laws on hate and bias incidents in school.

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

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