Public schools in Minneapolis, one of the most diverse districts in the state, have long recognized their need for more teachers of color. But 50 of them are losing their current jobs this fall, due to cuts largely tied to enrollment losses.
Next spring, however, teachers of color in the district will have new guarantees. The agreement that ended the three-week teachers’ strike this spring includes contractual language that upends traditional policies of last-in, first-out hiring as a way to retain “members of underrepresented populations among licensed teachers.
The new contract makes Minneapolis one of the only school districts in the nation with such seniority-disrupting language, district and union leaders say. They hope this will help foster a teaching staff that better reflects the demographics of the students they work with, more than 60 percent of whom are students of color. Currently, about 16% of the district’s tenured teachers and 27% of its trainee teachers are people of color.
“It can be a national model, and schools in other states are looking to emulate what we’ve done,” said Edward Barlow, band teacher at Anwatin Middle School and Minneapolis board member. Federation of Teachers. “Even if it doesn’t do everything we wanted it to do, it’s still a huge step forward for the retention of teachers of color.”
According to a report by The Learning Policy Institutenational educational research association.
But last-in, first-out policies are designed to protect more experienced teachers, a higher percentage of whom are white.
For Minneapolis, that means even when the district is successful in recruiting teachers of color, “they might be the first to go,” said Candra Bennett, the district’s acting human resources officer. “It’s completely counterproductive.”
Although the union and the district have identified those protections as a priority, Bennett said it’s been a “somewhat difficult” journey to come to an agreed-upon language. “Let’s be clear – to get to this place, someone has to give up something,” she said. “The seniority-based system is the foundation of union work.”
The strike, combined with the recent racial reckoning in Minneapolis and across the country, has made the issue more urgent, Bennett said.
“It hasn’t escaped anyone’s notice that we need to start doing something differently,” she said, adding that she hopes the language will also work to boost recruitment in a highly competitive job market.
“A little piece”
The protections are part of a larger part of the union contract that includes other provisions against racism and prejudice, including the establishment of a mentorship program for educators of color in the district. According to the contract, the protections are an effort “to address the lingering effects of past discrimination by the district” … resulting in “a lack of teacher diversity.”
While district chiefs and union leaders agree that the provision of the contract is an important step, they say it is not enough. The culture of Minneapolis schools must be welcoming and inclusive enough to attract — and retain — diverse educators.
Katie Pekel, principal-in-residence at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, agrees. She leads a team that works to bring research and insights to local school districts looking to diversify the teaching staff.
Minnesota’s faculty is approximately 5.5% teachers of color and its student body is approximately 30% students of color.
“This is a small piece of a bigger puzzle,” she said of the new contract language in Minneapolis, which is similar to recommendations from her team and Education Minnesota, the union state teachers. “We would say that recruiting and retaining teachers of color is really about, ‘Do you have a culturally sensitive leader and an environment that humanizes and affirms these educators?'”
So far, such contractual language has not been widely adopted across the state.
However, some districts, including schools in the Robbinsdale area, have agreements that protect trainee teachers — defined as those with less than three years of experience — beyond the last-in, first-out order. ‘they better reflect student demographics.
Over the past five years, the deal has saved 12 Robbinsdale teachers from losing their jobs, said Peter Eckhoff, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Educators. The provision isn’t race-specific — and neither is Minneapolis’ — so, for example, it can be used to retain an elementary school teacher in a school with mostly female teachers.
“Yes, it’s working and, yes, it’s in the contract…but we still have a long way to go,” said Amy O’Hern, executive director of human resources for Robbinsdale Schools. The district has about 65% students of color and 90% of teachers are white, she said. “It’s an ongoing conversation and brainstorming to solve this problem. Districts can’t do this work in silos.”
More work to come
As Minneapolis implements contract language for the next school year, Bennett said district officials will work with the union as well as districts like Robbinsdale.
“I think it’s a really easy conversation in theory,” Bennett said. “But when you get into the nitty-gritty, it can be a very difficult conversation.”
Barlow, who is black, has worked in Minneapolis schools since 1989. He is proud of the new contract terms, but said it is now up to the district to live the values represented in those words.
“There’s so much more than seniority at stake here,” he said.
“It’s a broader conversation about working conditions, compensation, microaggressions and macroaggressions in the workplace,” he said. “Those are the things that this district also needs to reflect on and make moves to improve.”