Original URL:  http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2003/10/23/activists_point_to_schools_as_needing_lesson_on_diversity/

Activists point to schools as needing lesson on diversity
Boston Globe

By Sandy Coleman, Globe Staff

Some Randolph community activists and parents are criticizing the local school superintendent for a lack of diversity among the staff in a school district in which 60 percent of the students are nonwhite.

The activists say the most recent school department layoffs, which include at least a half-dozen minorities, are a glaring example of how the school administration apparently doesn't care about retaining nonwhite staff. They want school officials to commit to hiring and keeping a staff that more resembles the racial makeup of its students.

"The staff does not reflect the demographics of the school population, and hasn't for quite a while. I don't believe there is any real commitment from the top to change that," said David Harris Jr., chairman of the Randolph Fair Practices Association, who says his group has received similar complaints from parents. "This has been an on-going problem."

Patti DeRosa, cochairwoman of both the Randolph Unity Network, or RUN, and the town's affirmative action task force, said the layoffs are discouraging, coming at a time when some residents are pressing to improve diversity among the town's employees.

DeRosa and members of a town-appointed diversity study group recently voiced frustration about town officials whom they say have been dragging their feet in revising and implementing an affirmative action plan that had been in the works for five years. The 2000 US Census showed that Randolph is one of the most diverse communities in the state; the town's workforce, excluding the school department, is more than 93 percent white.

"Where is the general sense of fairness and the role-modeling?" DeRosa said of the school layoffs. "What is the message it sends to white students when they see no one of color in authority? It sends the wrong message."

School Superintendent Arthur Melia agrees that the staff is not diverse, given that the student population of 3,850 is 60 percent minority. However, he said, the layoffs were necessary because the district had to cut $2 million from a $30 million operating budget. He said he had to follow union seniority rules, keep the core academic staff, and let go some staff members on the basis of their job performance.

All those reasons may be true, said Mary Brown-Jones, a black high school guidance counselor for three years who was among those laid off. But, she said, "I think people in power have ways of doing what they need to do. . . . The bottom line for me is not that I don't have a job, but I think the kids are being done a disservice."

Melia said 47 people were let go -- including four African-American staffers (one adjustment counselor, one social worker, one French teacher, and one guidance counselor) and four minority bilingual aides in the Chinese and Haitian language programs, whose services were no longer needed after the state switched to the English immersion program. Melia said the district now has about 315 teachers, of whom 7 to 8 percent are minorities. "It would be nice to have a more diverse staff. We've made an effort to do that over the past several years, and we've hired a lot more minorities in the past five or six years than we ever had," said Melia. "But we've had jobs we've posted for months and weeks" without minority candidates applying.

"I've talked to Patti in the past and said if you have people, bring them to me," he added. "There is a dearth of candidates for these jobs."

Other educators have also lamented the scarcity of minority teachers and are trying to improve the situation. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about 10 percent of all US teachers are members of a minority group, while minority students nationwide make up 33 percent of the student population. By the year 2020, the percentage of minority teachers will shrink to an all-time low of 5 percent, while 41 percent of American students will be members of minority groups.

Harris acknowledges that the local district competes with higher-paying cities like Boston for minority teachers. However, he said, a bigger factor is that the Randolph school system is not following an affirmative action plan he helped push more than two decades ago. The plan calls for "the employer to make additional efforts to recruit, employ, and promote qualified members of groups formerly excluded," and outlines policies for advertising jobs and mentoring minorities.

"If you sit back and just put an ad in the paper and say no minorities applied, that's a cop-out," said Harris, who was instrumental in pushing the town to draft its original affirmative action plan in 1982 by filing a complaint against Randolph with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. He claimed that a resolution passed at the Annual Town Meeting of 1965 to support equal opportunity in employment, housing, education, and individual rights without regard to race, creed, color, or national origin was not being implemented.

DeRosa contends that school officials have let many qualified candidates slip through their system. "You hear a lot, that `We are going to make the best decision and keep the most qualified.' So, are only white people qualified?" she said.

Grace Cornish, a School Committee member, said part of the problem has been a lack of turnover in the department. Many people have been in the system for 30 years, she said. That leaves minorities in the position of being the last ones hired and the first ones fired. However, said Cornish, "I'm not going to be naive and say we have a system that is equitable in terms of racial diversity. I think that has happened faster than the system could handle."

As people with many years of service leave the system, Cornish said, she would like to see more minorities hired and their retention made a priority. "It's important to give kids someone to look to and make that connection and have that desire to reach for the skies," she said.

DeRosa, a self-employed president of a company that works on diversity issues, said she wants to help the School Committee and school administration figure out a more aggressive approach to achieving diversity.

School Committee vice chairman Michael Crowley said he is willing to listen. He plans to attend RUN's Nov. 5 meeting, and has invited DeRosa to an upcoming School Committee meeting to discuss concerns.

And as for the recent layoffs, Crowley said, "I would like to see the list the group has and sit down with the superintendent and review that."

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.