At the 1995 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) People of Color Conference in Baltimore, organizers challenged attendees to return home and create learning and networking opportunities by and for educators of color. The inspiration stuck. Twenty-five years later, more than 50 member schools continue to thrive in Northern California alone as part of the People of Color in Independent Schools (POCIS) network.
“We believe in the idea that if you want to create programs that serve people, the people you are intending to serve should be at the table,” says Jeremiah Jackson, chair of the POCIS of Northern California.
While the effort to increase diversity in student and staff populations continues to expand, independent schools and the communities surrounding them remain predominantly White. According to The AISNE Guide to Hiring and Retaining Teachers of Color by Michael Brosnan, educators of color frequently report feeling isolated and undervalued — particularly when administrators prioritize diverse hiring but fail to invest in building schoolwide multicultural communities.
“Schools are looking for solutions to better serve people of color,” says Jackson, who is also the director of equity and inclusion at College Preparatory School in Oakland, Calif. “They are investing in us to create a space for people of color to design programming that incorporates issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice into every lesson across all disciplines and departments.”
Faculty of color currently make up 19 percent of total faculty members in independent schools, a 6 percent increase from the 2014-2015 academic year, according to NAIS, which has 1,600 member institutions.
“Not only should the numbers of teachers of color be higher, but schools can also do a better job retaining the teachers of color they hire. Teachers of color still tend to leave schools more quickly than Whites, often because the culture and climate do not feel as supportive as they should be,” Brosnan writes in the guide.
Johára Tucker, director of equity and inclusion at Worcester Academy in Worcester, Mass., has spent 10 years researching why faculty of color retention rates are lower than those of their White counterparts.
“When you take a deeper look beyond opportunity or life change, there are issues of extreme bias, exclusion, and heightened senses of anxiety that lead to faculty choosing not to stay,” Tucker says.
Diversity in faculty benefits all students, not just students of color. Building communities that support faculty of color outside of school is one helpful strategy to improve retention, says Tucker, who serves in a leadership role with POCIS.— New England, another regional chapter formed after the 1995 conference.
“Our most valuable resource is each other,” Tucker says. “I know that if I put a call out for help that my inbox will be full with folks ready to assist. I have felt some of the strongest support from the connections I’ve made through our chapter.”
Educators of color build connections through local and regional support networks and national conferences. But there are also active networks online. Sherri Spelic, a transplant to Vienna, Austria, where she is a leadership coach and physical education specialist at the American International School, wanted to help people of color in independent schools sustain a professional network, regardless of their proximity to each other.
Spelic decided to facilitate an online roundtable, held monthly through video calls, that offered participants a space for shared learning, new connections, and solidarity.
“For many of us, that space was sacred,” says Spelic, who organized the Leaders of Color Roundtable from 2014 to 2015. “Confiding in people who are not attached to the same institution as you can allow for honest communication and valuable perspective.”
She also cites Twitter as an empowering place for connecting. While Twitter has its limits, Spelic says the platform is a great resource for educators of color, particularly those who live in remote or majority-White areas and do not have routine access to in-person gatherings and opportunities.
Still, Spelic makes the transatlantic flight back to the United States to lead workshops, including one she co-led with educator Min Pai at the People of Color Conference in 2017, titled Communities in Question: How People of Color in Independent Schools Create and Sustain Community.
“If you are in a school or workplace setting where things can get very tense, having that community allows you to think beyond yourself, to share ideas and feel valued,” Spelic says.●
Sarah Edwards is a contributing writer for DiversityIS.