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In Amherst schools, percentage of nonwhite students much higher than nonwhite teachers

While 41.8 percent of the students in the Amherst elementary and regional schools were nonwhite as of Oct. 1, only 15.6 percent of the staff were nonwhite, according to a report presented Tuesday to the School Committee.

Committee members said nonwhite students can feel alienated if they don’t see many nonwhite teachers in their classrooms, and they discussed reasons for the disparity.

Amherst’s nonwhite staffing is far lower than the 41 percent in the Boston schools. But among non-urban districts, Amherst’s elementary and regional schools have the highest percentages of nonwhite staff in the state, according to the report.

While nonwhite staffing in the Amherst elementary schools declined from 21 percent in 2008 to 16.3 percent this past year, in the regional schools it increased from 14 percent to 15.8 percent, according to the report.

Among all the Amherst elementary teachers, 15.5 percent are nonwhite, while 13.8 percent of the regional school teachers are nonwhite, according to the report.

“We’re paying attention to this and we’re doing OK, but we have a lot more work to do,” said Kathryn Mazur, the director of human resources.

The percentage of nonwhite students has stayed steady in the elementary schools, now comprising 49.3 percent. In the regional schools it has increased from 31.6 percent in 2008 to 37.4 percent this year, according to the report.

Whites represented about 86 percent of the applicants for all school positions from Oct. 1, 2011, to Sept. 30, 2012, while 3.4 percent were African-American and 6 percent were Latino, Mazur said. Of the 76 employees hired as administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical and custodial staff, 87 percent were white, according to the report.

Programs that prepare people to become teachers have a low nonwhite enrollment, and many of those new teachers are disinclined to move to western Massachusetts, Mazur said.

“This may not be the most hospitable area for people of color,” said Kip Fonsh of Leverett, who chairs the Regional School Committee.

Superintendent Maria Geryk said that coming to Amherst from an urban area or the Deep South can represent a cultural shift for young teachers. “People feel like a fish out of water,” she said.

The district recruits nonwhite teachers through career fairs, personal references and professional organizations, the report says. It used to attend a recruitment fair at the University of Massachusetts, but this was discontinued last year. The district held its own recruitment fair last May and plans to hold another April 2, 2013, Mazur said.

But with the total student population declining, there’s not as much turnover of teachers, she said. The district is limited in the incentives it can provide to new nonwhite teachers because of contracts it has negotiated with the teachers union, she said.

The district has helped graduates of the Amherst schools with their resumes and certification, hoping they will return to become teachers here, Mazur said. Staff have attended conferences geared toward nonwhite teachers, she said.

Committee member Amilcar Shabazz of Amherst said he got involved with the schools when he read a column in the newspaper written by an African-American student who spoke of his sense of alienation because of the small number of nonwhite teachers.

“When we are inclusive in teaching and curriculum, this is part of our representation as a high-quality school district,” he said. “We need to build a strategy for how to achieve the kind of inclusive excellence we want.”

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