On a recent afternoon, Musette Castle was sifting through a stack of books on her dining room table: The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway; Dubliners by Joyce; Catch 22 by Heller. The books come from her grandson Louis’ high school English class reading list. Castle, who is African-American, pointed out that the authors and protagonists are almost all white.
“My children graduated from Pittsford schools in the ’80s," Castle said. "They’re still reading the same books. Not that they aren’t great books — they are great books. But students don’t get the opportunity to see different points of view.”
Louis is now a junior at Pittsford Sutherland High School. Castle met with staff and challenged them to include more diversity in the reading list — for the benefit of students from all backgrounds.
“When you have books, and the only people shown in the books are white people, kids begin to say, ‘That’s the world,’ when in reality, the world is a kaleidoscope of many different people," Castle said.
The Pittsford Central School District employs 481 teachers. Of those, 478 are white, two are Asian, one is black. Castle can’t be certain that more teachers of color would lead to a more diverse reading list, but as a former school administrator herself, she wants school districts to be aware of bias — and human nature.
“It’s easier to hire the person who looks like you," she said, adding that she doesn't believe hiring practices are malicious or even necessarily conscious. "That’s every place, no matter where you go, whether it’s teaching, industry, whatever. That just happens, because that’s what people do.”
WXXI reached out to all local school districts for a comment or statement about their approach to hiring. Pittsford Superintendent Mike Pero is the head of the local superintendents association; he offered a short statement on behalf of all local districts. Here's the statement:
“A diverse staff is a benefit to any organization, including school districts. Unfortunately, since the advent of the New York State Reform Agenda, higher-education institutions have experienced a 40% drop in students entering teaching programs. This reduction in overall applicants surely impacts the already small number of minority teacher candidates.”
Brighton superintendent Kevin McGowan agrees and wanted to explain how this issue affects his district.
“We believe deeply in our commitment to diversity and providing kids with all different types of role models," McGowan said.
The Brighton school district has diverse student groups, called unions — there’s an African-American student union, a Jewish student union, a Muslim student union and more. Diversity in the student body at Brighton is celebrated.
But out of 335 teachers in the Brighton district, only one is African-American, two are Latino, two are Asian. Three hundred and thirty are white. That’s 1.5 percent teachers of color in a district that has nearly 30 percent students of color. Last spring, an incident shook up the district and brought that disparity more to the forefront.
“We discovered that there had been, on the sidewalk outside the high school, a racial epithet scratched into the stone," McGowan explained. The epithet contained a slur against African-Americans and a threat.
Senior Caleb Pettway, who is both African-American and Caucasian, told us that for a while, students of color felt like their peers and their teachers were ignoring the racist etching.
“It was insane how people could write something like that, and it was mind-boggling that people would just play it off like it was cool," Pettway said. "Like, 'Oh, that’s not a problem, why are you making such a big deal out of it?' It was a huge deal for not just me, but many other students.”
Sophomore Sonia Zand, who is white, explained that without teachers of color, there were initially some gaps in communication.
“Two of my teachers had a discussion about it, but I think there was a big mentality of, 'We just won’t bring it up, so we won’t cause an upset,' " Zand said. "And I think that’s where we need to move forward, is having the difficult conversations to have every student understand how everyone is feeling.”
McGowan could see that students were hurting, so he called a meeting of representatives from the student unions.
“We brought them together and talked about, ‘How do you feel? Let’s talk about this,' " McGowan said. "We brought the police in to meet with them. I met with them, along with the police chief. And there were a lot of tears shed by adults and kids about how horrible we felt that we were in this situation —that they came to a place where they experienced that.”
Pettway and Zand said the meeting was a sign of genuine concern during a sensitive time.
“We’ve had incredible support from our superintendent, and that’s really rare," Zand said.
“Our staff does a lot to try to make us comfortable," Pettway added.
The incident in Brighton highlights the challenges for a district that has very little diversity on staff, as well as ways for that staff to try to overcome the disparity. But there are other concerns related to the impact of a lack of teacher diversity, going back 30 years. In a 1986 article for Urban Educator, researcher W.A. Mercer wrote, "(operating) a public school system without black teachers is (like teaching) white supremacy without saying a word." Academics have expressed similar concerns over the years, but there are few actual studies that seek to demonstrate such effects.
Brighton is undertaking new efforts to add diversity. McGowan said they've already made one hire. But he believes all districts can train their mostly white staffs to better understand students from different backgrounds.
“Sometimes we push really hard on that idea that non-diverse candidates and non-diverse teachers are somehow then not empathetic, or not able to work with a diverse population as well as someone with a diverse background, and I reject that as an idea also," McGowan said. "We certainly want a diverse teaching population. But the biggest mistake would be not having high-quality, caring teachers. That's our first priority."
Musette Castle thinks districts can change if they want to, whether it’s a reading list or the diversity of teaching staffs.
“All of that can be changed," Castle said. "Not saying it can be done overnight, but if you make a conscious effort, you can do those things.”
But McGowan says parents — particularly white parents — should understand their own role in communities that lack diversity.
“Parents have made a decision to live in a place, and in a community, where, although we have great diversity, two blocks away there’s a significant amount of diversity much more so than what is here," McGowan said, referring to the city of Rochester. "So I think that everybody is making decisions around these issues, and it’s powerful to think about all the decisions we make in life that segregate us.”
All data in this story is from the 2015-16 school year.
Degrees of Diversity is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.