SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – Utah's public school teachers are less diverse than the students they teach, according to a review of state data. While 1 in 4 students is part of a racial or ethnic minority group, fewer than one in 10 teachers fit that description.
State education managers say that's largely because the state has diversified rapidly in recent years, and it takes time for that to filter into the teaching ranks. An overall shortage of qualified teachers and relatively low salaries also play into the disparity, The Salt Lake Tribune reports.
The biggest gap is among Hispanics, according to the numbers provided by the Utah State Office of Education. While about 16 percent of public school students are Latino, only 2 percent of the 31,000 certified teachers and principals in the state meet that demographic.
A diverse faculty is important because it gives students role models who look and speak like they do, said Bryant Middle School Principal and native Peruvian James Yapias. But good teachers can make an impact regardless of race.
"What matters is the instruction -- the quality of instruction," Yapias said. "We hire the best for the school and for the student needs."
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Still, a diverse faculty exposes the entire student body to people of differing backgrounds.
"It's good for (students) to see the diversity so they know they live in a society that is comprised of more than one race," said Joyce Gray, who became Utah's first black school principal in 1984. "Not one culture, but many, many ethnicities and many, many cultures."
The Virginia native says she's seen more diversity in Utah's education force over the course of her three decades in education, but it's still a "work in progress."
Part of the challenge is a decline in the number of teachers compared to the number of students, Deputy State Superintendent Sydnee Dickson said. If fewer people are choosing the profession overall, it becomes even harder to recruit minority faculty.
"We're experiencing a teacher shortage on all fronts," she said. "Within that shortage, we're less likely to have teachers of color than if we had a robust teaching workforce."
Prospective teachers also face the double-whammy of strict employment requirements and low salaries. Those can be particular barriers for immigrants, even those who were teachers in their home countries.
Evelyn Cabrera-Lopez worked in the data entry field after moving from Guatemala in 2006, until she landed a job with the Davis School District.
"As soon as you come to the country, you need to start working," she said. "There are bills to pay."
She works as a computer lab manager at an elementary school, a job that doesn't require full teaching certification. She's working to complete the requirements but says for many people, the time and effort aren't worth the low salaries.
"We could have more diversity, but teachers are not getting paid enough," Cabrera-Lopez said, "so not a lot of people want to do it."