As Arizona's population grows and changes, the ethnic diversity of teachers across the state isn't matching the demographics in their classrooms. And while many experts see this as an old problem being exacerbated by population growth, some districts are starting new efforts to attract a more diverse pool to the state.
Ideally, a district's teacher population would reflect its students, letting youngsters see positive role models from the whole fabric of society, said John Wright, president of the Arizona Education Association, the state's teacher union. But it's tough for schools to keep up with the state's growth.
"Because of that unique set of circumstances, districts in Arizona are always having to be creative in finding enough teachers," he said.
Arizona had 3.6 million residents in 1990, with 80.8 percent of them saying they were white and 18.8 percent of any race reporting Hispanic origin, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That population swelled to 5.1 million in the 2000 census with 75.5 percent white and 25.3 percent of Hispanic origin.
By comparison, there are currently 56,286 teachers in districts across the state, according to the Arizona Department of Education. Of those, 83 percent report they are white and not of Hispanic origin.
At Arizona State University's Tempe campus, minorities make up about 24 percent of the College of Education's undergraduate population. The college has had tried to attract more minorities for several years, using grants, peer-to-peer mentoring and programs specifically for Native Americans.
"I think everybody has been looking as hard as they can to find and recruit these students. ... Everyone is sort of scrambling about this," said Elaine Surbeck, associate dean for teacher education. "Everyone is very much aware of how the demographics are changing."
In the Scottsdale school district, about 25 percent of students are ethnic minorities, said Jeff Thomas, human capital director for the district. But 94 percent of the district's teachers are white.
Thomas has analyzed exactly how many teachers he needs to fix that. For instance, 4.3 percent of Scottsdale students are Asian or Pacific Islander, but less than 1 percent of teachers match that population.
"Just by sheer numbers right now, I don't have 59 Asian or Pacific Islander applicants," Thomas said.
To fix that, Scottsdale is starting to go through online recruiting networks it hasn't used before, to target more ethnically diverse groups in other parts of the country.
The Tempe Union High School District has also brought diversity to the forefront. The district changed its strategic plan this year, adding the word "diverse" to its goal to "recruit and retain a highly-qualified and diverse staff." Tempe has also advertised in publications that target minorities.
Other districts see this as an old problem that continues to evolve. Janice Ramirez, assistant superintendent for the Mesa Unified School District, said Mesa has done a number of things to try to attract minority candidates for at least 20 years, including targeted advertisements, going to recruiting fairs at colleges with high numbers of minority candidates and encouraging support staff to earn teaching certificates.
But with fewer people pursuing education, it's more difficult to find qualified candidates. For instance, Ramirez said she regularly received 300 applications for elementary school principal posts, but now she's lucky if she gets 80.
Ramirez said she believes economic factors play a big role.
"Private companies are also looking to diversify their work force, and they pay better than education can," she said.
Many minorities are first-generation college students, so they're often encouraged to enter the work force and help support their families instead of going to school, said Gia Taylor, assistant dean for student services at ASU's Mary Lou Fulton College of Education.
That's why students need to be prompted to think about teaching from an early age, Wright said.
"It's that encouragement that can give the students an idea that this might be good for them, and they might enjoy it," Wright said.
Encouragement works for teaching converts, too. Socorro Tapetillo, a first-grade teacher at Chandler's Galveston Elementary School, never meant to be a teacher - she just wanted to volunteer at Galveston while taking a break from her accounting career after her fourth child was born.
Instead, Galveston offered her jobs, first as a classroom aide and later working with parents.
A teacher and the principal encouraged her to get her teaching certificate, so she enrolled in a program that let her earn it while she worked.
"If it hadn't been for all the encouragement saying, 'I could do it,' I probably would have returned to accounting," Tapetillo said.
Tapetillo said her background helps her connect with her class, many of whom come from Spanish-speaking families.
In other cases, it's a different culture that brings more to the classroom. Math teacher Michael Tsorin, of Coronado High School in the Scottsdale district, was born in Russia and lived in Italy briefly before moving to Chicago when he was 9.
"When we have discussions about how the economy works and how businesses work, I can bring some additional perspective," Tsorin said. "I differentiate between different systems from personal experience, not just reading about it."
Tsorin is also Coronado's soccer coach. Even though most of his players are Hispanic, his European background helps him connect with them on a different level.
"Most of their favorite teams are in Europe," Tsorin said. "Some of them have aspirations of playing professionally. Some of the things they've seen on TV, I've seen that in person."
Teachers and districts agree that as important as diversity is, qualifications trump everything.
"Good teaching is good teaching. I don't think you have to be a minority to teach kids from a minority background," Tapetillo said. "I don't think being a minority helps me in the teaching aspect - it's more the comforting, the understanding."
And she serves one other function.
"I'm a role model," she said. "(My students) do express an interest in teaching."