BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Arvin Union School District's superintendent works in a sea of brown, with 90 percent of students being Latino.
She has spent her entire career working with under-represented students in Kern County. She speaks to Arvin parents in Spanish, and is a part of the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators.
But Michelle McLean is white, as are more than three-fourths of administrators in her district.
That picture isn't exclusive to Arvin. Seventy-six percent of campus administrators in Kern County are white while three quarters of students are not. Latinos make up 60 percent of the student population, but represent only 18 percent of school leaders, California Department of Education figures show.
Kern also employs fewer minority education leaders than neighboring counties and the state as a whole.
But does it matter?
Yes and no, education leaders say. And while they strive to close the gap, they are careful not to make it their predominate goal in hiring and promoting.
Minority representation among school administrators is important given the achievement gaps that persist in schools, said Sylvia Rousseau, a University of Southern California professor of clinical education and expert on diversity and school leadership. Latino and African American students, for example, traditionally score lower on standardized tests than whites and Asians.
Bringing people into schools who "have been there" is a plus in connecting with and helping migrant and English-learner students, she said.
"We have to be sensitive to what culture and language play in learning," Rousseau said. "Our children come to school with multiple assets, and our schools don't always embrace them. We treat them as deficits. We need to have administrators that know their way of learning."
Rousseau said the numbers prove we need improvement. Nationally, 20 percent of all administrators were minorities in 2009, according to the Department of Professional Employees, AFL-CIO.
Kern County, percentage-wise, has more white administrators than Fresno and Los Angeles counties while seeing relatively the same student demographics.
Several local districts have no minority school leaders including Beardsley, Lakeside Union, Rosedale Union, Sierra Sands Unified, Standard, Tehachapi Unified and both Taft school districts. The closest we come to equal representation between students and those who oversee them is in the Delano Joint Union High School District.
There, 63 percent of administrators are Latino, including the superintendent, while 85 percent of the nearly 4,000 students are Latino. Still, the percentages are below the state average.
It matters to Superintendent Rosalina Rivera that students can look up to her as a role model. Rivera, who attended high school in Delano and graduated from Cal State Bakersfield, looked up to minority leaders herself as she climbed the ladder.
"Young girls, young adults in our district come up to me and say, 'Some day, I'm going to be superintendent'," Rivera said. "They need to see people that look like them, that have a similar background because they do need those role models."
Still, she said, "leadership and commitment to students" matters most.
Art Armendariz, a Delano Joint Union trustee and former Delano mayor, said as a board member he looked for "people sensitive to anyone of color or gender."
"We are a team here," he said. "A person needs to be sensitive to the needs of the entire student population. If it happens to be a minority, that's a plus."
As a side note, the district has zero Filipino administrators, while 12 percent of students, more than 500, are Filipino.
Local administrators say a big problem is a dearth of qualified minority applicants.
A week ago, the Kern High School District board appointed nine administrators. Of the 42 applicants, four were Latino and three were African-American.
A recent open assistant principal position in Panama-Buena Vista Union School District garnered nine applicants: one was Latino, one black and the rest white. Of the 16,500 students in Panama, half are Latino. Of the 54 administrators, more than 80 percent are white.
It's seen in colleges, too.
Of those pursuing an administrative credential in fall 2010 from CSUB, 44 percent were white, 25 percent were Hispanic or Mexican-American and seven percent were black, campus figures show.
Getting minorities to the point of earning a credential is an issue. Latino and black students drop out of high school and college at a higher rate than others. Kern County is one of the least-educated in the nation, research has shown.
"The pool is shallow, and everyone in California is fishing in the same pool," KHSD Superintendent Don Carter said. "It's a systematic problem."
Five years ago, the Association of California School Administrators kicked off a "diversity action plan" to address the lack of diversity in school leadership.
It includes helping school leaders understand diversity and barriers to access; mentoring new administrators of color; and increasing awareness of efforts to promote equity.
"You'll see the change in the administrative population over time," said Julie White, spokeswoman for the association. "There's a consciousness on the need to continue to build on it."
Efforts for years have been under way at Kern High, the largest employer of school administrators in the county. Eighty percent of administrators there are white while 30 percent of students are white. The black populations match. But 60 percent of students are Latino while only 14 percent of administrators are, state figures show.
The district has made gains in the last 10 years, especially among its principal's advisory council, which is made up of principals, department heads and assistant superintendents. In 2001 the council had one minority; now it has seven.
"Are we where we want to be? No," Superintendent Carter said. "There is value in having role models for the students. It's important for kids to see that."
"But strong leadership transcends everything," he said. "To what degree should ethnicity be measured to preparation, and experience, and competence?"
KHSD runs several programs that train employees to be administrators at all levels while keeping an "eye toward promoting women and under-represented ethnicities," Carter said.
It was the job of Anabel Rubio and the rest of Arvin Union's trustees to hire a superintendent last year. They received about 30 applicants, five from Latinos.
Hiring a Latino would have been a plus, she said, but more important was someone qualified with a focus on all students. McLean fit the bill, she said, and it helped that she spoke Spanish.
McLean herself said she sees importance in diversity of school administrators and employees generally. Of four principals there, two are Latino. Nearly half the teachers are Latino, while 86 percent of other staffers are.
During a recent round of layoffs, McLean purposefully protected credentialed teachers with bilingual certification.
"I am going to lean more toward the person in Arvin who is Hispanic," she said. "But I don't think you want to put that above the actual qualifications of the person."
On Wednesday, the school board gave McLean a new four-year contract through 2015.