The racism around us

Study: 92% of L.I. teachers are white

Greater staffing diversity would benefit all students, education experts say

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Ninety-two percent of Long Island public-school teachers are white. In nearly two-thirds of Long Island schools, there are no black teachers. In more than two-fifths of them, there are no Latino teachers. And most children grow up in segregated communities that divide along school district lines.

Those were the findings discussed at the Long Island Educator Diversity Convening at Hofstra University last spring.

“Long Island is one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the nation,” Elaine Gross, president of ERASE Racism, told an audience of more than 100 at the event. Since 2001, ERASE Racism, a conference sponsor, has worked to increase racial equity on Long Island

The lack of diversity in most Long Island school systems was the main subject of the four-hour symposium, which brought together school administrators and teachers to discuss segregation patterns in the schools — and how to diversify the Island’s classrooms.

According to research by Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies in 2017, 61 percent of the 642 public schools in Nassau and Suffolk counties do not have one African-American teacher, and 43 percent do not have a Latino teacher.

In total, 4 percent of teachers are Latino, 3 percent are African-American and 1 percent are Asian. The remaining more than nine-tenths are white.

“Children, students and adults need to be exposed to non-white people in positions of authority,” said Dr. William Mangino, chairman of Hofstra’s sociology department, who conducted the research with Lawrence Levy, executive director of the Center for Suburban Studies. “Diversity is a benefit for all of us.”

The roots of segregation run deep on Long Island, Mangino and Levy explained. Covenants in the lease agreements for houses in Levittown — the first and most famous post-World War II community on Long Island — allowed only “Caucasian” people to live in them. With that beginning, structural racism took hold in suburbia, and has endured here ever since in what the researchers called “mono-racial neighborhoods that we still see today.”

“Other places have never seen the amount of segregation that there is on Long Island,” said Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative to the state Board of Regents, who spoke at the Hofstra conference. “Deliberate economic segregation to racial segregation, this is reflected in our schools.”

Mangino and Levy noted that after the Fair Housing Act of 1968 declared racial residential segregation illegal, white people shunned people of color, so “their neighborhoods and their schools did not integrate.”

“White flight” was very real in neighborhoods.

Over time, certain communities, like Roosevelt, shifted from all or mostly white to all or mostly black, the study found. The researchers also highlighted Latin immigration to Long Island, saying that despite the increased racial and ethnic diversity, recurring “racialized housing patterns” translate into segregated neighborhoods.

Changing perspectives

Dafny Joy Irizarry Ortiz, an English as a New Language teacher in the Central Islip School District, said she believes she was hired at the start of her career because she could speak Spanish. She was not there to teach the language, but to “take care of the Latino kids,” she said.

“Having another teacher helped me to keep going,” she said, speaking on the “Educator of Color Experience” panel. Ortiz is the founder and president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association. “Hiring has to be an intentional, collective effort by district leaders,” she said, “with the goal of having diversity.”

Racism remains in place in the hiring system, however, according to Jemal Graham, an assistant principal at H.B. Thompson Middle School in the Syosset School District. He said he was advised to call himself Jim on his resume, instead of Jemal. “That’s indicative of the perception out there,” he said, referring to the “quiet” racist views of some school administrators.

Lillian Hsiao, who is Asian-American and an English as a New Language teacher at Great Neck South High School, said a job interviewer once told her, “You speak English so well, without an accent.” Hsiao was born in the U.S.

Wayne White, a social studies teacher at Bellport High School and president of the Bellport Teachers Association, said people of color have to “work so much harder” than their white counterparts to get ahead, and people of color are “hired to talk to or teach ‘those kids.’”

Revising policy and practice

Dr. Lorna Lewis, superintendent of the Plainview-Bethpage School District and president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said that greater collaboration with universities is needed to seek recent African-American, Latino and Asian graduates “of excellence.”

Lewis, who is African-American, leads a district that is 80 percent white, 13 percent Asian, 5 percent Latino and 1 percent black as of 2018. “There is no place for hate,” she said. “It’s so important that students see diversity. Success comes in all colors.”

“It wasn’t an easy task being a woman of color in North Babylon,” said Brandy Scott, the school district’s former assistant superintendent for curriculum, assessment and instruction. “I had to deal with the school board, but they made a commitment [to diversity]. We created a mission statement and a vision and vocalized it to the community.”

Dr. Aurelia Lucia Henriquez, the Riverhead School District superintendent, said few districts have experienced the recent turnover in staff that hers has to increase staff diversity. “You have to do the work to find candidates of color,” she said.

Sean Douglas, a social worker in the Uniondale School District, said that when he was elected to the Valley Stream School District 13 Board of Education in 2010, the only employee of color in the district was the custodian.

As of 2017, 95 percent of the teaching staff was white, despite concerted efforts to hire more educators of color, according to previous Herald reporting.

Douglas offered a challenge to increase school diversity on Long Island. “We have to have the courage to have these conversations,” he said, adding that we should ask, “How do we include everyone? Staff should be reflective of the student population.”