PORTLAND, Maine (NEWS CENTER) - The numbers are striking: More than half the students in the Portland public school system are people of color, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants. The workforce in the school system? It’s about 94% white.
"Some of the schools I went to, the students were very segregated in a way,” says Mulki Haji, a high school student in Portland. “Most of the Arabs would sit together and most of the Congo kids would sit together. Some of the teachers did not really have good representation. They didn't really know what to do with that in the cafeteria and how to fix that type of issue.”
The mismatch between the faculty and the student body, says Jeanne Crocker, the Director of School Management, “is among our highest concerns.”
Administrators have tried to attract more minority teachers. “We have in the past recruited in state and out of state, “ Crocker says. “That has not been terribly successful.” So the school system made a decision to try to grow its own teachers. This summer, in partnership with the University of Southern Maine, Portland offered a summer program aimed at generating interest in the teaching profession and creating a more diverse workforce. About forty people have worked as interns, a mix of adults and high school students.
Mulki Haji is one of the interns. Among the things she learned this summer is that she does not want to be a teacher. “I give props to all the teachers here. Many of the kids, their energy is up here,” she says, waving a hand above her head. Then she lowers the hand to her chest. “And I am here.”
Change is not going to come immediately. “We have 1,200 employees,” says Barb Stoddard, the school system’s head of human resources. “”It’s going to take probably a few years, probably three to five years to really move the mark.”
But change may already be happening. Fernando Olimpio, a 42-year-old who managed hotels in his native Angola, has been in the U.S. for just seven months. His ambition is clear—he wants to become a teacher. “If the student doesn’t like what you do, it’s really difficult,” he says. “But when they like it, that’s the most beautiful thing you can do in life.”