A standing-room-only group of close to 75 people filled up the meeting room of the Las Lomitas Elementary School District's governing board on April 13 to hear and talk about efforts to add more diversity to the district's teaching staff.
Superintendent Lisa Cesario and consultant Eugene Whitlock said the district has been working hard since the issue was first brought to its attention more than a year and half ago. Mr. Whitlock, who is the vice chancellor of human resources and general counsel for the San Mateo County Community College District, said the Las Lomitas district currently has nearly 15 percent minority teachers on its staff, up from less than 10 percent in the 2013-14 school year.
According to figures provided by the school to the California Department of Education on its EdData website, 38 percent of the district's students are minorities. The two-school kindergarten to eighth-grade district includes neighborhoods in the western part of Menlo Park and Atherton and small sections of Woodside, plus nearby unincorporated areas including Ladera.
In February, 177 parents signed a letter asking the district to do more. "We would like to see the educators and administrators who inspire, inform, enlighten and advocate for our children reflect the spectrum of diversity in our classrooms and community," the letter says.
David Williams, a parent of biracial children in the school district, said having his children grow up seeing people who are like them "is important to us."
"We need to find some way to measure how much we're willing to invest in finding a more diverse candidate pool," he said.
Julie Floyd, who has three children who she said have "excelled academically" in Las Lomitas schools, said the district needs to include all kinds of diversity. "Achieving minimum requirements is not enough," she said. "Let's strive for excellence for all."
Parents say the issue first surfaced when the district used materials that some parents felt were inappropriate while teaching students about bullying. Parents began asking the district to make efforts to recruit more diverse teachers to their staff.
Allison Virsik, who has four children in the school district, said parents were frustrated after bringing the issue to the district's attention. "We felt we were unable to collaborate or have a constructive conversation," she said.
Ms. Virsik said parents are "entreating the board to recognize the importance of this issue."
In January 2015 Mr. Whitlock prepared a report for the district, assuring it that its hiring and recruiting practices were legal, but also urging the district to take a number of steps to help recruit a more diverse teaching staff.
He said at the meeting that the district has put most of his recommendations into place, but that two of his suggestions have not yet been implemented.
The suggestions already being followed by the district include training in unconscious bias for interviewers, adding questions about experience in working with diverse groups to the list of interview questions, and recruiting more broadly. He said the district has reached out to professional associations of under-represented groups and tried to attend a broader array of job fairs.
What remains undone is adopting a "diversity statement" for the district and modifying the district's recruiting materials, he said.
Board members said they want the district to work on a diversity statement that would be in place by the time the district starts recruiting new teachers for the 2017-18 school year early in 2017.
Mr. Whitlock said such an effort, before being approved by board, should include the entire school community: students, faculty, parents and administration. "It's a longer process, but I think it's a process that everyone should participate in," he said. The process, he added, will need to start soon after school starts next fall in order to complete in time for recruiting the next year's teachers.
Mr. Whitlock said part of the problem is that California, and the nation as a whole, is suffering from a teacher shortage, as well as a shortage of minority teachers. Fewer people are studying to be teachers at a time when the demand for more teachers increases as schools work to reduce class sizes, he said.
Mr. Whitlock pointed out that in addition to the Las Lomitas district having improved its ratio of minority teachers this school year, the statistics used by the parents that showed the district previously had the lowest percentage of minority teachers of any local district were incorrect.
Parents mistakenly included the number of teachers in other districts who did not supply their race in the reported statistics as minority teachers. While the Las Lomitas district did not have any teachers who did not report their race, leaving its percentage at 9 percent, other districts' percentages were lower than the parents had shown.
The correct numbers for 2014-15, Mr. Whitlock said, are: Palo Alto Unified, 19 percent minority teachers; Los Altos, 18 percent; Menlo Park City, 15 percent; San Carlos, 13 percent; Portola Valley, 8 percent; and Woodside Elementary, 7 percent. Las Lomitas had 9 percent minority teachers in 2014-15.
The numbers are confirmed on the state's EdData.org website.