DeKALB – Billy Hueramo stopped teaching students in his classroom at Huntley Middle School this week and reported to the assistant principal’s office, where he found a chair waiting for him.
After seven years in the district, Hueramo was promoted to assistant principal of the school. It’s an accomplishment that makes him beam with a pride he hopes will inspire his students.
“This is my first time seeing a Latino as an administrator,” Hueramo said. “I love that students can look up to me and see me being successful.”
Although there have been other minority administrators in the DeKalb’s School District 428, it’s easy to understand Hueramo’s view. Less than 5 percent of the district’s teachers and administrators are Hispanic, based on data from the Illinois State Board of Education.
ISBE data shows that although students in District 428 schools come from diverse backgrounds, their teachers and administrators are overwhelmingly white.
As student demographics change in DeKalb County, school officials are making a concerted effort to find qualified minority candidates for teacher and administrator positions so the racial and ethnic backgrounds of educators more closely resembles that of their students. Educators say they believe it’s important for students to have positive role models with similar backgrounds.
State of the district
About 91 percent of teachers and administrators in the District 428 are white, compared with a little more than 56 percent of the students. Less than 3 percent of educators in the district are black, compared with a student population that is 15 percent black.
But the biggest disparity is in the Hispanic population. Although Hispanics account for more than 22 percent of students, only 4.6 percent of educators are Hispanic.
Students also are much more likely to be taught by women than men: More than three-quarters of District 428 teachers are women.
When the student population and the teacher population is so dissimilar, it can create some challenges because of the cultural differences, Assistant Superintendent Doug Moeller said.
“Unless you can make a connection and [students] think you care about them, you’re not going to teach them anything,” Moeller said. “It’s important for kids to have someone in their lives they can look up to as a role model. They can say, ‘Wow, look, there’s someone successful who looks like me.’ “
Challenges and solutions
Moeller said the district faces two major obstacles as it seeks to recruit minority teachers and administrators: Fierce competition from other districts closer to Chicago and strict regulations on out-of-state candidates who want to become certified in Illinois.
Last year, District 428 launched a diversity recruitment committee aimed at finding qualified minority and male candidates and encouraging them to apply for positions in the district. The committee was led by human resources director Connie Rohlman, who has worked in the school district for 23 years. Most of her time with the district was spent in schools.
“I saw the disproportion between students and staff,” Rohlman said. “I really saw it was a need.”
The recruitment committee includes administrators and teachers, a majority of which are minorities. Committee members travel to job fairs such as the one at Chicago State University, where a majority of the students are black. But District 428 isn’t the only one trying to attract minority teachers.
“We’re finding there’s not a lot of minorities in the field of education, so we’re all fighting for the same candidates,” Rohlman said.
As a black man, Ata Shakir, a freshman academic literacy teacher at DeKalb High School, is among the most under-represented group in the district. He said he approaches all students the same regardless of their race, but that doesn’t mean he’s not aware of the condition of the district.
“I don’t really dwell on race much,” Shakir said. “I’ve been black for 38 years, but I know for some of my students it is a defining factor. I recognize that there are some students who may or may not have had a black teacher before.”
Demographically, school districts across Illinois look similar to the DeKalb School District. Statewide, 83 percent of teachers are white, 7.1 percent are black, 5.3 percent are Hispanic, 1.3 percent Asian and less than 1 percent multiracial. The Illinois student body is half white, 17 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian and 3 percent multiracial.
DeKalb has made some gains in staff diversity in the past two years. Three bilingual teachers were hired through the Visiting Teacher program from Spain. Of the 62 staff members hired, eight were minorities and 13 were men.
District officials also are attempting to recruit teachers and administrators from outside of Illinois, but this isn’t a clear path to increasing diversity because of requirements the Illinois State Board of Education places on candidates. Just because a candidate is certified to teach in another state does not automatically certify them in Illinois.
DeKalb County Regional Superintendent Amanda Christensen said out-of-state candidates often have to complete extra coursework before they can be certified in Illinois because state requirements go above what is required in some other states.
“You could say Illinois has one of the most rigorous programs,” Christensen said.
District 427 Superintendent Kathy Countryman said the requiremens for out-of-state candidates can create a problem in her district, as well.
“Some of the requirements are good, but some have become a barrier,” Countryman said.
District 427 also is trying to align its student and staff population. Data from the district was incomplete for the past two years, but it was available for 2010, when 97 percent of Sycamore’s teachers were white compared with 81 percent of its students.
“Our biggest challenge is finding bilingual candidates because the fastest-growing population is the Hispanic population,” Countryman said. “This can be our focus at times.”
Hispanic students make up almost 9 percent of students in District 427.
Both the DeKalb and Sycamore districts conduct diversity training to keep staff aware of how to approach changing demographics, such as being more aware of the varying home lives or backgrounds their students have.
Hueramo said the diversity training is valuable, but added it’s not the same as the person-to-person connection.
“It can be hard to build meaningful relationships with students and parents,” Hueramo said. “We bring that background knowledge of where those students came from. We see their parents working, but we want to show them school is important and we want them here.”