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The Allentown Morning Call

Panel To Address School Diversity

Allentown District Looks At How To Attract Black, Latino Teachers.

By Jose Cardenas Of The Morning Call

26 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Allentown Morning Call. All rights reserved. 

The Allentown School District has formed a diversity committee of educators and community members to devise a plan by February to increase the number of black and Latino teachers and administrators in a district composed mostly of minority students.

Community leaders have long urged Pennsylvania's fourth-largest school district to hire more minorities to keep up with the region's changing demographics.

"I feel this is a start," said Dan Bosket, president of the NAACP Allentown chapter and a member of the diversity committee. "I don't know how successful it's going to be, but again, taking some action is better than taking no action."

As the center of Allentown has become predominantly minority over the last decade, activists have noted the need to increase their representation in various areas, from the school district to elective offices.

Leaders of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition for several years have urged school officials to hire more minorities and have considered filing a lawsuit to force the issue.

Some activists say district officials responded by noting they had made efforts, but recruiting trips to Puerto Rico and New York, for example, had not been successful.

But the district, some community leaders say, has given the issue more attention since Superintendent Karen S. Angello was hired two years ago.

Though Angello had to deal first with getting the district off the state's list of academically distressed school systems, earlier this year she appointed Deputy Superintendent C. Russell Mayo to address diversity.

Some committee members express confidence in Mayo because of his background, such as supervising desegregation programs in Little Rock, Ark., and representing the school system in federal court.

"People are not jaded anymore," said Ed DeGrace, a community activist who helped Mayo start the committee. "In the past, we have been told by some people who were not pure in motive "yes we are working on that,' but they did not verbalize what they were working on. Meanwhile, the numbers continued to go the other way."

The two-dozen-member committee includes administrators and professors from Muhlenberg College, and Kutztown and Penn State universities and four high school students. They met early this month and asked Mayo to gather statistics on the 17,200-student district.

Census figures show that blacks and Latinos make up roughly 30 percent of Allentown's general population. Yet school district statistics show the two groups make up more than 70 percent of student enrollment.

Mayo told the committee that the school district's professional work force, which includes 1,113 teachers, 39 counselors and 62 administrators, is 8 percent minority, higher than the national average of about 6 percent.

Nationally, however, the minority student body population in public schools hovers above 20 percent, less than a third of Allentown's percentage, Mayo noted.

"Because we are a little bit higher in our diverse makeup," in the student body, Mayo said, "we would like to be higher in our work force makeup also."

Latino leaders have most notably complained about the lack of culturally sensitive and bilingual counselors. There is only one black counselor and two Latinos.

Community leaders say more minority counselors would help some students who are trying to do well in school while dealing with poverty -- 70 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches -- family problems and limited English skills.

DeGrace and Erika Sutherland, a Spanish professor at Muhlenberg who is also on the committee, say they hear of Latino students who are advised by counselors to enroll in vocational classes rather than college preparatory courses.

Sutherland pointed to a study by the National Collaborative on Diversity in the Teaching Force released in October that found that multicultural students perform better academically, personally and socially when they are taught by teachers from their own background.

Ethel Drayton-Craig, director of the office of multicultural life at Muhlenberg, also a member of the diversity committee, said Allentown's low number of minority teachers potentially feeds a vicious circle.

"We don't have young people wishing to go into teaching," she said. "Possibly, it's because they don't even sense that's even a possibility. Why? Because they don't see anyone" like them.

Mayo and the committee aim to produce a plan that the school board can vote on early next year.

The process might include developing a survey for students and staff to gauge people's openness to diversity, Mayo said.

The eventual plan might include goals, such as a date by which the district should have hired a certain percent of minority staff.

Ideas on how to do it might include, for example, recruiting teachers trained in Puerto Rico and financially helping them get their credentials here or offering financial incentives for all teachers so Allentown can better compete against the Philadelphia and New York districts.

Not all community leaders are convinced that the committee signifies an honest effort to improve minority hiring.

Jose Molina of the Pennsylvania Statewide Latino Coalition, which has a lawsuit pending against Reading that challenges the low number of Latino police officers, said the group is open to legal action in Allentown.

"There has to be guidelines that demonstrate that these administrators really will change the hiring process to include more Latinos," he said.

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