In part of the fight for their contract, the BEU is asking for additional protections for BIPOC staff, as both students and teachers agree that having more BIPOC staff would be beneficial of all students. (GRAPHIC BY ELSIE MCKENDRY)
In part of the fight for their contract, the BEU is asking for additional protections for BIPOC staff, as both students and teachers agree that having more BIPOC staff would be beneficial of all students.

GRAPHIC BY ELSIE MCKENDRY

Diversity clause sparks dispute in negotiations

March 24, 2022

In the Public Schools of Brookline (PSB), 18.6 percent of teachers are teachers of color, while 48.7 percent of students are students of color. The Brookline Educators Union (BEU) is pushing for policies that focus on hiring and retaining teachers of color. Special education teacher Jason Montrose often has students tell him that he is the first Black teacher they’ve ever had.

“When I was a junior in high school, [having a teacher of color] made me feel proud. I felt like I really could do something or be special. It’s one thing to be told that, but when you see representation, then you really believe that,” Montrose said.

According to a study by the Institute of Labor Economics, having at least one teacher of color as a student of color in primary school improves performance on standardized testing and reduces the likelihood that a student of color drops out of high school. A lack of teachers of color can also be harmful to white students and teachers in that it limits their exposure to different perspectives and therefore limits the scope of their education, according to both METCO coordinator Malcolm Cawthorne and Junior Azavia Barsky-Elnour.

Seven years ago, the PSB attempted to address these disparities by prioritizing the hiring of staff of color. Graciela Mohamedi, a physics teacher at the high school and member of the Brookline Educators Union (BEU) Executive Board, said that this initiative was short-lived.

“The [BSC] passed a diversity hiring initiative to bring in more educators of color and did a really good job. The problem is lots of those educators never made it through the first three years, and because of how short-lived that hiring program had been we didn’t keep getting new purposeful hires like that,” Mohamedi said.

In the spring of 2020, 300 teachers received reduction-in-force notices (RIFs) and were left without jobs for the time being. According to Mohamedi, these layoffs disproportionately affected teachers of color who were hired as a part of the district’s recent efforts to increase teacher diversity.

“When 300 educators were sent out reduction in force notices, it affected all of those new, purposeful hires, many of whom [had been] recruited from other districts where they likely had professional status or were about to get professional status,” Mohamedi said.

In their current contract negotiations, the BEU specifically proposed that the BSC “grant[s] BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) educators Professional Teacher Status (PTS) as early as allowed by law and regular meetings with the superintendent.” This is the fifth clause of the BEU’s proposed contract.

With this clause, the BEU is specifically hoping that teachers of color will gain protection to remain in the district, president of the BEU Jessica Wender-Shubow said. She hopes they can achieve this by changing the timeline of achieving professional status. Professional status means they are granted the right to due process. Without professional status, the school system can decide to lay off teachers without reason.

Mohamedi said the BEU would like to reinstate monthly meetings with the superintendent that they had in the past. These meetings produced tangible efforts to improve the diversity of the K-8 staff.

“Out of our past meetings [with superintendents], we developed a workshop that was offered to the K-8 teachers. In that workshop, we were able to find out what teachers need in terms of broadening their knowledge of racial issues and issues that our students are going to be dealing directly with. It was great,” Mohamedi said.

A study by TIME Magazine shows that when Black students have at least one Black teacher, they are more likely to succeed. Barsky-Elnour referenced this study in a speech she made to the BSC.

“We know for a fact, and we have concrete evidence to suggest that between kindergarten and eighth grade, if you’re a Black student and you have at least one Black teacher, you are more likely to graduate high school, more likely to consider college and less likely to get into any kind of trouble in school suspension or in non-school suspension,” Barsky-Elnour said.

With no progress being made on finalizing the contract, the BEU began a “work-to-rule” protest in early December 2021, in which teachers only work within the parameters of their school day, meaning from the hours of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Despite reluctance from the BEU, the two groups entered mediation on Mar. 4, according to Wender-Shubow. Mediation involves a third party, a state representative from the Department of Labor Relations, making the ultimate decisions about what the contract will include.

Stances on the Proposal

BSC Chair Susan Federspiel said that over the past year the BSC has made efforts to retain more teachers of color.

“I don’t know if we have an official [stand on the fifth clause]. We certainly have made statements that we want to recruit, hire and retain additional staff of color. There’s no doubt about that. We are committed to doing that,” Federspiel said. “We are doing things to make that happen. We’re confident that we have new people in place, and that they have good ideas about how to make that happen.”

BSC member Steven Ehrenberg said he, personally, believed each group should maintain their own responsibilities and leave the issue of retaining teachers of color for the town government to solve.

“So because we think racial equity is important, we support the creation of this Office of Educational Equity. They’re tasked with improving racial equity across Public Schools of Brookline, so I want Dr. Guillory to be leading this. I don’t think this should be led by negotiations with the BEU; that seems like the wrong way to go about it to me,” Ehreberg said.

Mohamedi said diversity is a workplace issue that belongs in the contract because of its impact on all students. As a teacher, she said it is her job to care for her students, and representation in staff can help students feel seen.

“Our contract is created in order to define our working conditions. My working conditions depend on my students, and it doesn’t make sense for a contract to not include something like diversity and equity. I’ve got a kid who feels like nobody’s there for them and acts out. Are they the problem? No. The real problem is that the kid has felt unseen, ignored and unrepresented. It’s so important for kids to be able to see themselves in their teachers and mentors,” Mohamedi said.

According to Mohamadi, the BEU is not asking for unfair privileges but is seeking to prevent situations like the one in the spring of 2020 and represent groups that would otherwise go unrecognized.

“I’m not suggesting that we should give everybody professional teacher status after they work here for one year. We’ve got to try people out just like any job. But to prevent another situation like the one a few years ago, we have asked the superintendent to endeavor to give PTS early to educators who are underrepresented in the educator pool. It’s not just about race. In the elementary school the most underrepresented group in the teaching pool is male teachers. As long as the teachers are qualified and doing their jobs, why not protect the diversity of our staff from a reduction in force notice a year early?” Mohamedi said.

According to Federspiel, the BSC is seeking a contract that all members of the community can benefit from.

“We have to look at all the groups and all the stakeholders. It needs to be fair to the teachers, the staff, the students and the families. It needs to be something the community can agree with, in terms of reaching salary raises. Fair means that it’s a good contract, so the teachers are respected and treated as professionals and they get the support that they need to do a good job,” Federspiel said.

According to Federspiel, newly hired staff in certain positions, such as Jenee Uttaro as Senior Director of Equity, have helped present ideas to the BSC for how to retain more teachers of color. Federspiel said people from the Central Office visited job fairs “targeting staff and teachers of color” and “putting advertisements in very specific publications that target that population.”

Federspiel said that rather than including a clause in the contract, supervisors, including principals and the superintendent, could be authorized to make the process quicker for granting teachers professional status. Additionally, Federspiel said the BSC is doing other things to address the issue presented in the fifth clause.

“I don’t know where negotiations will take us. But, we are pretty confident that the issue is being addressed and action steps are being taken by our Central Office in our Department of Human Resources. We are confident that work is being done,” Federspiel said.

Seeking change beyond the contract

Despite both the BSC and BEU agreeing that students of color need representation in their teachers, negotiations have reached a stalemate. Throughout this, many in PSB, like Ehrenberg, are advocating for change.

“Students are the ones who experience it the most powerfully. Students of color need to have teachers who look like them,” Ehrenberg said. “The larger student body is well-served by having a diverse group of teachers. Students are the ones who we should be making decisions for.”

Cawthorne said having more teachers of color is essential to creating a better environment for teachers speaking out. When he initially became a teacher, Cawthorne said he felt wary of speaking up, and if there were more teachers of color, he would have been more willing to. For a very long time Cawthorne was one of the few teachers of color in his department, and he assumed the role of bringing a different perspective to his colleagues.

“When you have more representation, it helps you to look through different lenses and to think about history differently,” Cawthorne said.

Wender-Shubow acknowledged this problem, and similarly said that this racism needs to be addressed as there have been shortcomings in the BEU.

“It’s past due that all unions address the structural racism within our own history and within the institutions that we are part of and the larger society. The BEU has been examining the shortcomings of our own engagement with the challenge to tackle structural racism for some time,” Wender-Shubow said.

Barsky-Elnour said Brown University’s Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan is an excellent example of the transparency and specificity that is needed. She said that the lack of Black teachers demonstrates to Black students a lack of prioritization from the school.

“What we’re actually teaching our Black students and reinforcing is that, even in a community that supposedly cares so much and is telling us that you can be successful and Black, we can’t even show that by hiring Black teachers,” Barsky-Elnour said.

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