People of color are underrepresented in public school leadership across Massachusetts, holding just 5% of superintendent posts, according to a new report from the Eos Foundation and Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.
Researchers presented their findings in a webinar Tuesday to highlight the challenges people of color and women face as they pursue top leadership positions in public schools.
The report found that in 2020, Massachusetts districts employed 14 superintendents of color, eight women and six men.
"That cohort is so small," said Lawrence Superintendent Cynthia Paris, a Latina. “It's so disheartening to know that I'm only joined by seven other of my (female) colleagues.”
Former Lowell and Wellesley superintendent Karla Baehr said part of the problem could be solved by increasing diversity within predominately white and male superintendent search organizations, like the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, and expanding their connections.
“It’s not that white men don’t want to do this work,” Baehr said of helping to diversify school leadership. “They don’t have networks. They don’t have connections. They don’t have ways to reach out.”
Gender disparities also exist in the state’s ranks of superintendents. Despite holding 59% to state licenses to perform that job, women make up 39% of current superintendents.
Researchers pointed to systematic practices that propel men faster into positions that are considered gateways to superintendent jobs, such as high school principal.
Cheryl Watson-Harris, who is a superintendent in DeKalb County, Ga., after spending years in Boston and New York schools, said another element is self-perception.
“You have to believe in yourself that you deserve to be there, because most often you'll be walking into spaces where people don't think that you deserve to be there or don't even want you there,” she said.
The racial disparity is also apparent across other roles. Educators of color hold less than 15% of all other K-12 positions in the state’s public schools, including teacher, principal and assistant superintendent.
By comparison, students of color make up 43% of the enrollment in the state’s schools.
Local education leaders and advocates testified last month in favor of two bills designed to increase the number of teachers of color by creating alternative routes to state certification and requiring districts to report their staff diversity and hiring goals.
Supporters of greater educator diversity note that research shows racial and ethnic representation among teachers and school staff has a positive academic and social impact on students of color.
Superintendent Paris said her Latina background helped her build a connection with families and students in Lawrence. One middle school student once asked for her direct phone number.
“Kids will see me in the hallways and classrooms in their schools, and they just approach me as a matter of fact, because I think that they are that comfortable with who they see to say, ‘of course, I'm going to get your cell phone number and have a conversation about a good idea that I have,’” Paris said.