BY ANTHONY FUENTES
Years ago a student asked me why there was so much pressure on students to go to the high school in their neighborhood while the teachers in that school were, by and large, not from and certainly did not live in the neighborhood. We talked about segregation both historically and currently until I realized what she was really asking. She wanted to know why the teachers in her school didn’t look like her. She was a young Black woman in a school where most students were Black and Latinx and most teachers were White.
That student’s experience is shared among the majority of students in the Kern High School District. While students of color make up about 78 percent of the student body, teachers of color make up only 20 percent of the teaching staff. This lack of teacher diversity is hurting all of our students and especially students of color, as Jesse Aguilar pointed out in his excellent opinion piece last month. Having gone to school in KHSD and now teaching there, I can confirm how critical the issue is.
KHSD has acknowledged that there is a problem. When community members asked about teacher diversity in the 2019-2020 LCAP (Local Control Accountability Plan) listening sessions, the district’s response was along the lines of: ‘We understand this is an issue. We are doing what we can, given the teacher shortage in California.’
I understand there is a teacher shortage in the state, but that doesn’t absolve the District from its obligations to its students. Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, was able to hire and retain a teaching staff made up of majority teachers of color after years of work with experts on diversity and inclusion. I am sure our district could do the same if it made this work a priority.
Hearing the District’s response showed me at best a disinterest in addressing the issue at hand and at worst the institutional racism that maintains rampant inequality in our city.
To be clear, the District has taken some steps in the right direction. According to the latest LCAP, the District started a residency program with California State University, Bakersfield, collaborated with Bakersfield College, and piloted a student club in two high schools (Bakersfield and West) called Educators Rising that encourages young people to become teachers. These are important programs, but they are only part of the solution.
I speak from experience when I say that it is incredibly difficult for many students of color to see themselves as teachers when they associate the teaching profession with whiteness. I had some excellent teachers who encouraged me to be my best, and I wholly appreciate their efforts. Yet the only person who I can truly credit with my becoming a teacher is my own father, an educator himself, who taught me lessons that were culturally relevant and most importantly, was someone I could see myself in. This is why the District needs a multi-pronged approach that begins with retaining, supporting and empowering people of color who currently teach here.
Our district needs to listen to the expertise of teachers of color who are already present. We know what our students want and what we need in order to stay long term. Give us an opportunity to participate in hiring and recruiting committees that are diverse in background and experience. This will help my fellow educators of color, and I feel more invested in the District and will help new recruits from under-represented backgrounds feel welcome.
It is great that the District offers competitive salaries, but money alone will not be enough to attract qualified teachers of color if they fear they might be tokenized or isolated in school environments that are predominantly White.
Further, the District needs to honor its commitment to diversity with a sufficient budget. It is unacceptable that the budget for providing a “highly-qualified, well-trained and diverse teaching staff” is decreasing from 2018 to 2019. After all, the District has failed to meet its own diversity targets for the last three school years (check out 2019-2020 LCAP Final Draft at p. 144.), despite the fact that it receives recommendations from diversity experts, attorneys and community organizations.
On June 24, the KHSD Board of Trustees will vote to adopt the 2019-2020 LCAP. As you can see from the table on the right, copied from page 170 of the draft LCAP, the District has made some significant promises for the upcoming school year. Let’s hold the District accountable to those promises and let’s continue to watch for results.
We have to see the number of teachers of color in our district rise. Until then, the community will not rest.
Anthony Fuentes is a U.S. History and Multicultural Studies teacher at Foothill High School.