The Tucson Unified School District has been ordered to improve racial diversity among its teachers.

In a district that has spent years under federal oversight for desegregation efforts, U.S. District Judge David Bury has told it to reduce by half the number of schools where racial disparities exist among the teaching staff — affecting more than one-third of TUSD schools.

The district is to achieve racial balance of its teachers by:

  • Using financial incentives, workload adjustments and potential for promotions to encourage voluntary transfers that improve staff diversity;
  • Prohibiting teachers from transferring to schools where they would create, or exacerbate, racial disparities, and;
  • Prioritizing transfer requests that help with racial balance.

Educators who are grounded in the day-to-day experiences of their students and communities bring more-favorable views of students of color and more positive perceptions regarding their academic potential, according to a 2014 National Education Association report on teacher diversity.

“They frequently teach with a greater level of social consciousness than do others, appear to be more committed to teaching students of color, more drawn to teaching in difficult-to-staff urban schools and are more apt to persist in those settings,” the NEA report states. “The research also implies that same-race teachers are more effective in teaching students of their respective race.”

The order stems from TUSD’s decades-old desegregation order, which requires TUSD to track its teachers by ethnicity and school to identify significant disparities — more than a 15 percentage point difference between African-American and Latino teachers and districtwide percentages at comparable grade levels.

While 69 percent of TUSD students identify as African-American or Hispanic, that is true for only 31 percent of the district’s teachers.

Meanwhile, Anglos make up about 21 percent of TUSD’s student population but 66 percent of the teaching staff.

Last year, one TUSD school — Collier Elementary, 3900 N. Bear Canyon Road — did not have a single teacher of color. That has changed this year as one Asian teacher has been hired.

Meanwhile, Holladay Elementary, 1110 E. 33rd St., which has a Hispanic student population of 71 percent, had no Hispanic teachers last school year. One Hispanic teacher was hired this school year.

Tucson Education Association President Jason Freed, who is white, started his teaching career in a school that was 90 percent minority, and despite not looking like the majority of his students, says he feels he was able to connect and be effective because of his enthusiasm.

“The value of students being exposed to all walks of life is so that they have a deeper and more enriching experience when it comes to the school setting, but that doesn’t mean any one thing,” he said. “Culture could be part of that, ethnicity can be part of that, gender can be part of that, but so can growing up in the Southwest. … We all bring different things to the table, I just don’t know that we need to narrowly define what that looks like.”

Freed says he is alarmed by the message the court order sends.

“We should be hesitant — crossing over to fearful — of the language that exists in this court order,” he said. “Teachers actively choose the site they are at for a myriad of reasons, and they’re where they are because they want to be there.”

He is also concerned about employee morale when incentives are being given only to certain teachers or if teachers are restricted from transferring to a site that best suits them.

“We have to find every way to entice educators to stay in the profession as well as for people to choose this as a profession, so any impediment to that end is something we have to be cautious about,” Freed said.

TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez embraces the court order, challenging as it may be to meet.

“I think it has the potential as it’s written, if we can make it work, to have a positive impact,” Sanchez said. “I don’t see it as a negative to have greater diversity on campuses.”

The TUSD leader’s own experience as a student is behind that support, having gone through high school with all white teachers. It wasn’t until college that Sanchez says he met his first minority teacher, who inspired him to switch from majoring in chemistry to English.

“Not to say that all of my Anglo teachers did a terrible job — they were great, but I appreciated the opportunity to have some commonality with a teacher early in my college career,” he said. “If we can get minority teachers to campuses where there isn’t as large a presence, those minority kids will see opportunity reflected in those teachers, and where we have Anglo teachers who are in short supply, if they go out to other sites that the same thing can happen — their skill and expertise can open the eyes of students to some possibilities.”

While Sanchez is aware that some teachers may be limited in where they can teach as a result of the order, he hopes that with more than 80 schools to choose from, everyone will be able to find something that is appealing.

Under the court order, TUSD is to develop and implement a plan for the next school year that reduces by half the number of schools with significant disparities and to eliminate all significant disparities by the 2017-18 school year.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@tucson.com or 573-4175. On Twitter: @AlexisHuicochea

The red pins signify TUSD schools with significant racial disparities in their teaching staffs.

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.