Mark Laurrie has watched the demographics of the Niagara Falls City School District shift over the last 33 years. He has spent his entire career in the district — first as a classroom associate, then as a special education teacher, dean of students, vice principal, principal, deputy superintendent and now superintendent. He has watched the student body convert to a majority-minority population, and while he believes student programming has been responsive to the increasing diversity, he has watched staff recruitment fall short.
“It is my belief that students need to have professionals around them and professionals instructing them and leading them that look like them,” Laurrie said. “That is a basic belief.”
The district has about 7,000 students and close to 55% of them are nonwhite. Meanwhile, Laurrie said closer to 10% of teachers belong to minority racial and ethnic groups.
In his first year as superintendent, Laurrie has made it a district priority to make the teaching force and professional staff better reflect the student body. He has voiced that commitment to the school board and at nonprofit and community organizations around the city. Dozens of people have recommended friends and relatives who would be interested in joining the district, including relocating back to Niagara Falls if a job were waiting for them, and Laurrie has promised to consider the résumés and qualifications of all of them.
What’s more, he has been proactive. Laurrie recruited a staff member away from the local Boys & Girls Club after recognizing his potential and he has been in talks with a former graduate working in New Jersey as a theater arts teacher in advance of local retirements.
“We can’t wait for minority folks to come out and fill out applications,” Laurrie said. “We need to go to them and tell them why this is a good district, why this is a good place to work and why we need them.”
Nationwide, the number of K-12 minority teachers more than doubled from about 325,000 to 666,000 from 1987 to 2013, according to a study by Richard Ingersoll and Henry May for the Learning Policy Institute. That growth outpaced the growth among white teachers, pushing the proportion of minority teachers from 12% to 17% of the teaching force overall.
While this falls far short of reflecting the nation’s student body, Ingersoll and May celebrate the fact that minority teachers are two to three times more likely than white teachers to work in high-poverty, high-minority and urban communities — those hardest to staff.
“This has been something of an unheralded victory,” they write in their 2016 paper. “While commentators and researchers have at times tended to discuss the minority teacher shortage in pessimistic terms — often accompanied by calls for more funding and support — the data suggest that such efforts and expenditures have worked.”
Still, high turnover among minority teachers has undermined this success. The schools that minority teachers are most likely to work in are also the most likely to have less desirable working conditions that account for low retention rates. Perhaps counterintuitively, Ingersoll and May found salary levels, professional development opportunities and access to classroom resources all had little association with teachers’ propensity to leave their schools.
Most important to these teachers, by far, were “the level of collective faculty decision-making influence in the school and the degree of individual instructional autonomy held by teachers in their classrooms,” according to the study.
In Niagara Falls, retention is high, which is why Laurrie is first placing his focus on recruitment. He hopes an increasingly diverse staff will lead to improved academic outcomes for students, namely test scores and graduation rates. He believes it will also improve the school culture and make everyone in the school community more accepting of diversity.
“That’s what the world is,” Laurrie said. “You’ve got to learn to work with everybody — be accepting of everyone.”
In addition to the district’s recruitment efforts, Laurrie is collaborating with the teachers union to offer a $2,000 scholarship to a minority senior who plans to go into the teaching profession. While the scholarship winners will not have to make a firm commitment to return to their alma maters with their teaching credentials, they will be strongly encouraged to do so.
Niagara University also offers support through an endowment the district calls Grow Your Own. Teaching assistants or other uncertified professionals interested in becoming teachers can get financial support to do so through Niagara University if they are minorities or interested in going into a high-need area like special education.
Laurrie said he plans to charge ahead with teacher and support staff recruitment in the coming year and keep an eye on what he calls the next big hurdle: getting minorities into more district leadership positions.