Diversity hasn't reached principal's office
As Broward County's student population rapidly grows more diverse, its mix of principals and school administrators lags behind.
BY MARY ELLEN FLANNERY
In the giant Broward County school district, only 10 school principals are Hispanic. That's 6 percent, compared with nearly one in four students.
Even as the county rapidly grows more diverse, school administrators are still mostly white non-Hispanics -- and their grip on the principal's office can be damaging, Hispanic parents say.
The children lack role models and academic leaders who appreciate their unique needs, said Dr. Erwin Vasquez, a Fort Lauderdale cardiologist and member of a new district subcommittee studying the lack of Hispanic leaders.
''I love this country -- it's the No. 1 country in the universe -- but we need a little balance. We pay taxes, too,'' said Linda Alber, a Pembroke Pines parent and native of Colombia.
Since 2002, when Schools Superintendent Frank Till told the Frank Vargas Hispanic Round Table that he would work to diversify the district's ranks, the percentage of Hispanic principals has remained unchanged at 6 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of Hispanic students in the county grew from 21 to 23 percent.
Additionally, there are just two senior administrators working with Till who are Hispanic.
This year, he acknowledged to the diversity committee that the district still has far to go but promised they would see improvement soon.
"It goes back to creating a better pool [of applicants]. You'll see a much better cross-section in the pool because we're advertising outside the system.''
Also, Till said, they're creating a pipeline within the system by increasing the number of Hispanic teachers. From 1985 to 2002, the percentage of Broward teachers who identified themselves as Hispanic grew from 2.5 percent to 14.8 percent.
The discrepancy exists in Miami-Dade as well, where 58 percent of the students are Hispanic, compared with 33 percent of principals and 40 percent of teachers.
Broward has seen improved diversity among lower-ranking administrators, who presumably will someday fill the shoes of older white principals. Fewer than half of its acting or interim assistant principals, who are on the first rung of administration, are white; 46 percent are black; and 10 percent are Hispanic.
Still, even if all of those entry-level administrators eventually sit behind the principal's desk, the percentage of Hispanic school leaders still would be lower than the percentage of similar students.
That's not enough, and the superintendent's strategy needs to be more aggressive, said School Board member Lois Wexler.
''I'm tired of hearing about the pipeline -- it doesn't exist!'' she said. ``Tell me how you're going to New York and Texas and Puerto Rico. Tell me how you're going to create this pool.''
Minerva Casanas-Simon, chairwoman of the district's diversity committee, also is sick of empty promises, she said. The school district could find plenty of qualified Hispanics -- if it looked for them, she said.
''I have a hard time believing that in a country with 35 million Hispanics, the School Board of Broward County can't attract a couple of applicants,'' Casanas-Simon said. Why not look to Puerto Rico, where applicants would be Spanish-speaking American citizens, she suggested.
''This is not about removing people to replace them with Hispanics. This is about our community being represented at the table,'' Casanas-Simon said.
"You have a district that becomes more and more Hispanic every day. . . . I can't imagine these discussions around the table where there's nobody providing a voice for Hispanic children.''
Of the 10 Hispanic principals, three are in middle schools, seven in elementary schools.
Monique Castillo, president of the parent organization at Hollywood Park Elementary, which is 55 percent Hispanic, sees the need for Hispanic administrators almost every day. A lot of parents new to this country don't speak English or, even if they do, ''it's hard for them to put their feelings into English,'' she said.
When they come to school to talk about any of the kinds of things that parents want to talk about -- their child's grades in reading, problems with a bullying classmate, or the need for additional support -- it helps when the principal understands the language and culture, she said.
'Let's say your child is told they have to be retained in third grade. They want to come in and say, `What happened?' '' Castillo said. ``I've seen kids have problems in the cafeteria. They don't understand what the woman says to them and they get panicky, then they tell their parents and they get panicky, too.
''They do feel more comfortable when they can communicate. Anybody would feel like that, I guess,'' she said.
In general, Broward County's Hispanic students have done better than their counterparts statewide on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, but not as well as white students. Last year, 44 percent of Broward's Hispanic fourth-graders read at grade level, according to the test, compared with 67 percent of Broward's white fourth-graders.
LINDA ALBER, Pembroke Pines parent
For Alber, who is a member of Apollo Middle School's PTA, it's not so important that a principal speaks Spanish -- although at Apollo, where 43 percent of the students are Hispanic, principal Aimee Zekovsky is fluent.
''I see how she communicates with the kids, and she's great,'' Alber said.
It's more important that the principal understands Hispanic students -- because they're not the same as their white non-Hispanic classmates, she said.
''Hispanics are very expressive -- they get up and say whatever's on their mind,'' she said.
"And the boys are taught to be very macho.''
These kinds of cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings -- or worse, they can lead to undeserved suspensions for Hispanic children, Alber said.
But, in fact, the district's numbers show Hispanic students aren't very likely to be suspended repeatedly -- where they constitute 23 percent of all students, they make up just 14 percent of the group that was suspended at least twice last year.
While cultural sensitivity is important, it doesn't necessarily require that the principal be Hispanic, said Paula Bousque, a Weston parent with children at Falcon Cove Middle School and Cypress Bay High School.
Neither school has a Hispanic principal, although about 40 percent of the kids at each are Hispanic, and still Bousque is very happy with both.
''For me, I think you have to deal with the system the way it is here, so it doesn't matter to me,'' said Bousque, a native of Venezuela. ``But I understand that maybe people who can't deal with the language or way of life here would feel that a Hispanic principal would understand them better.''
Any principal should try to understand his or her students, and also understand that kids who immigrate here, regardless of whether they're Spanish or Russian or whatever, have specific issues, Bousque said. But parents also should try to get more involved in their schools, she added.
Ultimately, having more Hispanic principals or administrators will be good for both the Sanchezes and the Smiths, Vasquez said. On the one hand, Hispanic children need ''models [or] leaders, who will stimulate you, move you forward, that at least pay attention,'' Vasquez said.
But white non-Hispanic children also would benefit from diversity. ``I think Americans will be happy to find out there are other people with different approaches.
''They'll be anxious to learn these different approaches,'' he said.