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St. Mary’s public schools officials are looking for ways to hire a more diverse teaching staff that better reflects the diversity of its student body.

Those efforts will be among the day-to-day responsibilities of Nicola Williams, who began work last month as the school system’s new coordinator of certificated staffing and minority recruitment.

Williams was tasked with looking at what is working and what is not working in the school system in areas related to diversity, including recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce. She said it will take some time to complete an assessment, but she already has ideas.

The achievement gap between minority and other students is “a complex issue,” Williams said. Funding, what’s best in terms of instruction and other issues need to be considered.

The local NAACP chapter and others have for years called for a more diverse school staff, including more African-American teachers to better represent the county’s demographics.

This year almost 19 percent of students in St. Mary’s public schools are African-American. Less than 7 percent of school staff members are black.

“It is an attainable goal,” Williams said, while noting that St. Mary’s is in competition with other school districts for highly qualified teachers of all ethnicities.

About 90 percent of the 1,428 professional staff working in St. Mary’s public schools is white; just 6.6 percent is black, according to a report by Maryland State Department of Education based on employment numbers last fall. That number includes teachers, principal, pupil personnel workers and administrators.

The ratio holds about the same when only teachers are considered — 6 percent, or 65 out of 1,075, St. Mary’s teachers last school year were black.

About 22 percent of assistant principals in St. Mary’s schools are black. Fewer than 8 percent of school principals are black.

The percentage of black educators in St. Mary’s public schools has not changed much during the last decade, from 5.9 to 7.1 percent, even as the number of professional staff grew by about 200.

“I think a child perceives a level of understanding if they see that commonality” of race and ethnicity, Williams said, but adding that all teachers have the ability to connect with their students.

It is also important for parents to see a teaching staff that generally reflects the population, she said.

Williams said that diversity does not just include ethnicity. Male teachers are often in short supply, and a person’s background can create a more diverse staff. For instance, some teachers are considered “career changers” — coming from previous work with the military or private business — and can bring unique perspectives to the classroom.

Finding teachers who can work specifically with students impacted by poverty is important, she said.

Williams will look at “teacher pipelines,” that in addition to universities could include alternative programs such as a teaching academy for high school students thinking of a career in education.

Dale Farrell, director of human resources, said the school system for several years has wanted to create a teaching academy at local high schools that would help guide interested students into the teaching profession. Other programs elsewhere in Maryland offer high school students college credit for completing multi-year academies, he said.

Tight budgets have restricted the ability to hire staff for such academies, he said. Farrell said he still hopes to be able to create one in St. Mary’s, maybe next year.

‘An insider, outsider’

Williams earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Virginia and her doctorate from the University of Michigan.

She has worked at a variety of places as a teacher and as an education professor and researcher at the university level, and decided to return to her native St. Mary’s County. She is the granddaughter of E. Jerry Williams, a former principal at the George Washington Carver School.

“I would consider myself an insider, outsider” to St. Mary’s, she said.

Williams hopes to draw on her own knowledge of growing up in St. Mary’s County (she is a 1988 Great Mills High School graduate) to assist in her recruitment efforts.

“This is a beautiful area” that is great for raising a family, she said. “There are a lot of places, both urban and suburban, that wish they had these natural assets.”

She will also be focusing on what happens for students during the summer. She said that as much as two-thirds of the achievement gap is caused by stagnated learning over the summer.

Students from low-income families particularly lose ground during the summer when enrichment programs are out of their grasp. Healthy eating may fall to the wayside, too, further impacting children’s ability to learn during summer breaks, she said.

“There’s a real art and science to teaching,” Williams said, adding that she wants to help teachers learn to fold in new curriculum, community support and other resources to benefit students.

“It’s something that can be learned,” but needs to be applied through practice, she said.

Williams will work on ways to increase achievement among minority students with her colleague, Charna Lacey, who was hired about a year ago as a diversity and equity specialist.

Lacey said she will work to provide cultural proficiency lessons to all teachers in the county through an ongoing process. Teachers should get to know their students as individuals and help them identify any biases they may have.

“Part of a teacher’s job is to create a safe place in the classroom,” where students can think critically about their lessons and share their personal ideas, Williams said.

jyeatman@somdnews.com