PRINCETON: School district commits to hiring more minorities as teachers

Princeton schools logo 6/11/15

By Philip Sean Curran, Staff Writer
Superintendent of Schools Stephen C. Cochrane said Wednesday that the district would hire more minorities as teachers and administrators, in a school system where more than 85 percent of the faculty is white.
“We know that having teachers of color in our classroom helps every single student,” Cochrane said during what was advertised as a “community conversation on racism,” focusing on the public schools. The forum came in the aftermath of a series of racial incidents involving Princeton High School students.
He said the makeup of the teaching staff is 86 percent white, with the rest other races. He said he would “love” for that figure to mirror the composition of the student body, which is 55 percent white, 6 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic, 9 percent mixed race and 20 percent Asian.
Yet Cochrane pointed to “challenges,” where nationally, whites make up 82 percent of teachers in public schools. “There is a shortage of teachers of color in the pipeline to come through to get their teaching degrees and to get into the system,” he said.
The district, he continued, seeks out minorities at recruiting fairs, and even holds one such fair at John Witherspoon Middle School.
“We had the conversation about the importance of hiring teachers of color, administrators of color, at our admin team meeting this week,” Cochrane said. “There is a commitment. And this community will see a change come September.”
During the discussion, Joy Barnes-Johnson, a black teacher at the high school and fellow panelist along with Cochrane — touched on the dearth of minority teachers in Princeton.
Jamaica Ponder, a black Princeton High School senior and fellow panelist, said the last teacher of color she had in the district was in the seventh grade.
Ponder, the daughter of former Princeton Mayor Michele Tuck-Ponder, has written about some notable racial incidents in the community, including on her blog exposing the now infamous Nazi-themed beer drinking game that some high school students were playing at a private home last year. More recently, she wrote about a high school student writing the n-word on Snapchat, an issue that came up Wednesday.
“It didn’t surprise any of us,” Ponder said of the incident. “What was surprising was that it was given attention, because this stuff happens all the time. And the fact of the matter is, unless I go and write about it, no one does anything, no one says anything, no one cares.”
“So we feel the racial tensions that students feel,” said Barnes-Johnson in speaking for minority teachers.
Wednesday’s community meeting, held inside the middle school auditorium, drew a noticeable presence of past and current school board members to hear, often times, unflattering things said of a school system that they had or continue to have a hand in leading.
In many ways, it is a school system that Cochrane is seeking to change.
In terms of weaving race into classroom education, he said officials would do things with curriculum “to ensure that every student — white, black, brown — is going to have the opportunity to learn the language, learn the skills, to be able to talk about race.”
For instance, the social studies curriculum at the high school would be changed so that freshmen start with a unit on race in America and then use it as a “touchstone as we move through the entire curriculum, which is as the theme of race running powerfully, tragically and triumphantly through it,” he said.
But Elliot Wailoo, a bi-racial high school student, asked, among other things, when the history curriculum would include more about “everyone’s history” as opposed to just “white America.”
“I do feel like, especially in advanced history courses, the history of people of color in America is kind of boiled down to slavery, the Trail of Tears, Japanese internment, civil rights movement — those kind of smaller groups,” Wailoo said.
“We’re looking k(indergarten) through twelve at how we have a very balanced approach to the books that we offer to students and the way in which we teach US and global history,” Cochrane said. “So we have our work cut out for us, but we are committed to doing it.”
Cochrane also promised an “incredible sea change” in next year’s summer reading list for students, in the “diversity represented on that list, diversity around race and culture and gender.”
Wednesday’s event included a presentation by local historian Shirley Satterfield on the history of Princeton recalling when public schools were racially segregated, an arrangement that lasted until the late 1940s. As a girl, she attended a segregated school in town until moving to an integrated school for the third grade.