Lawrence school superintendent Rick Doll and school board president Vanessa Sanburn stopped by the News Center for an informal conversation with our editorial staff.
It's something they try to do at least once a year to talk about some broad, over-arching topics like the board's goals, long-range planning and whatever else comes to mind. For someone like me who's still new to the district, and the Lawrence school reporting beat, it was an invaluable opportunity to hear about some of the big-picture issues the district is grappling with.
One in particular came up in conversation that is certainly not unique to Lawrence, or the state of Kansas: the need to recruit more people of color into classroom teaching positions.
According to state figures, ethnic minorities make up about one-third of the student population in Kansas. But according to the most recent data available, they make up only about 5 percent of all certified personnel in public schools. That includes both teachers and administrators.
The student population in Lawrence is only slightly less diverse than the state as a whole: 70.5 percent white, compared to 67.4 percent statewide.
Information about the diversity of the Lawrence faculty wasn't immediately available. But suffice it to say that district officials know they need to do better.
This isn't about diversity for the sake of diversity. There are real educational advantages to having a faculty that looks like the community it serves.
The National Education Association is urging schools throughout the country to increase minority hiring, arguing that students benefit from have teachers, "who look like them, who share similar cultural experiences, and who can serve as role models demonstrating that education and achievement are things to be respected."
One national study in 2004 found evidence that a diverse faculty is linked to narrowing achievement gaps between white and minority students.
Superintendent Doll, however, notes that it's hard to recruit minority teachers from the graduating classes at Kansas schools of education, which is by far the single largest source of new teachers in Kansas public schools.
At one recent job fair, he said, there were only a handful of recent education school graduates who were non-white, and they were immediately swooped upon by every district there because they're all trying to increase minority hiring.
It would be easy to say that schools of education in Kansas need to do a better job of recruiting more minority students to pursue teaching as a career. They do, but that's only part of the story.
They're also challenged with recruiting enough people into the profession, period.
This is another subject that is often talked about in policy-making circles, but which often doesn't get enough public attention: the impending teacher shortage in Kansas that could reach crisis proportions within a few years.
The basic problem is that too many baby-boom generation teachers are getting close to retirement age, and there aren't enough new teachers coming through the pipeline to replace them.
Combine that with the fact that a large percentage of new teachers end up leaving the profession in their first three years, and you have the makings of a serious problem.
Ironically, the recent economic downturn bought Kansas some time, state officials have said. The lack of jobs in other sectors of the economy probably delayed many veteran teachers' plans for early retirement.
But that's not a sustainable strategy for keeping teachers in the classroom.
The biggest issue that affects recruiting, officials at all levels say, is the pay. Teachers in Kansas, whether they have a bachelor's or a master's degree, earn only about 70 percent of what people with comparable degrees earn in other professions, according to a 2010 report by the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that focuses its research on issues affecting low- and middle-income workers.
That's the seventh-largest wage disparity in the nation. The average wages of teachers here ranks 48th in the nation.
The only way to solve that is with money, which has been in rather short supply for public schools of late.
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