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Harding Elementary students

Students and staff at Harding Elementary participated in the Healthiest State Walk on Oct. 2. 

School districts in North Iowa, like others in the state, are facing challenges in finding teachers who reflect the diversity of their students. 

In 2018 every district in the state had teaching staffs that were more than 92% white. 

Almost 97 percent of the teachers at Mason City Community Schools during the 2018-19 school year were white, while more than 20 percent of the students were non-white. 

Charles City, which had a similar percentage of students of color, had a more than 99 percent white teaching staff. 

School districts are facing pressure to recruit, hire and retain more diverse teachers, especially if the district is urban or diverse.

For low-income black students, having at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces their probability of dropping out of school by 29%, a 2017 Johns Hopkins study found.

The same study showed black students with black teachers also had higher test scores.

Mike Fisher, superintendent of the Charles City School District -- where 74% of last year's students were white, 12% black, 7% Hispanic, 3% all other races and 4% multi-racial -- said it's important for students of color to have teachers who look like them and come from the same background because those teachers have a better understanding of their lives. 

"It's an empathy piece," he said. 

However, Iowa's colleges and universities don't have a lot of non-white students planning to become teachers.

Tom Drzycimski, human resources director at Mason City Community Schools, said the biggest challenge the district faces in diversifying its workforce is a stateside shortage of teachers -- especially those who have endorsement in special education, math, science and career and technical education.

"Our ability to hire teachers for these positions is only as good as our applicant pool, which is often not as racially diverse as we'd like," he said. 

In 2018, for instance, the University of Northern Iowa graduated 793 students — undergraduate and graduate — with teaching credentials. Of those, the university reported 54 minority students, and another 34 whose race was unknown.

In 2018-19, the student demographics at Mason City were 77.5% white, 10% Hispanic, 8.9% black, 2.7% all other races and .8% multi-racial.

That same year the teaching staff was 96.9% white, 1.74% Hispanic, .7% black and .7% all other races, according to the Iowa Department of Education. 

The teaching demographic statistics for the district in 2014-15 were 98.6% white, nearly 1% Hispanic, .2% black, and .2% all other races. 

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"The changes over those five school years, albeit incremental, are in the right direction," Drzycimski said.

In 2018-19 the Charles City district had one African-American teacher and no Hispanic teachers.

It did have one non-white administrator -- Fisher, who is Asian-American. 

Fisher became the Charles City superintendent in July 2018. Before that, he was the principal at Hoover Middle School in Waterloo, a district that's also trying to recruit more minority teachers.

Some of Iowa’s biggest, most diverse districts say one of the barriers to hiring teachers of color is the licensure requirements set by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners.

Like many states, Iowa requires teaching candidates, including those from out of state, to pass a mandatory assessment, which can be waived with three years of out-of-state teaching experience.

However, an applicant must also complete at least 75% of the coursework for one of Iowa’s teaching endorsements, which includes everything from foreign languages to core subjects to talented and gifted programs to reading specializations.

Without the majority of an endorsement, no license can be issued unless a waiver request is reviewed and granted. 

They say the requirements are overly burdensome for out of state candidates, forcing them to recruit only from in-state institutions, who themselves are working to increase the diversity of their students.

Some school districts -- including Charles City -- are trying to “grow their own,” with programming and mentorship opportunities targeted at current employees and students, to encourage them to consider teaching.

Some students at Charles City High School are helping out at the district's preschool, according to Fisher.

He also said the district is trying to become a "hub" for UNI education majors of color to do their student teaching. 

These programs take time to yield results, but in the long run they could prove more effective than hiring teaching candidates from out of state, according to Fisher.  

Fisher said non-white teachers from North Iowa would be more likely to stay than those from out of state, who might leave after a few years because of the cultural difference between Iowa and where they grew up. 

"We are trying to hire for longevity," he said. 

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Megan Valley from the Quad City Times, another Lee Enterprises newspaper, contributed to this report.

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