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The Quad

The Quad

Representation in Education

When Googled, the definition of belonging is returned with 3,400,000,000 search results in 0.29 seconds. When answered by peers, colleagues, and friends, the definition of belonging is often woven with sinusoidal eyebrows and intervals of contemplative silence. Nobody, not even America’s favorite monopolistic search engine, can determine the essence of belonging. Yet, SHP has decided to tackle the topic this year. On the Monday before classes began, August 7, Dr. Whitcomb released her annual “Welcome Back Letter” announcing Sacred Heart’s mission towards an environment of belonging where “every child feels welcome, heard, and included in the life of the school.” However, awkward advisories and half-hour clubs alone can not accomplish this. Belonging begins with unprecedented eye contact, followed by a smile with the teacher whose name you’ve never heard. Belonging sprouts from the stories shared around campus that capture an aspect of your life. Belonging starts with seeing yourself in others.

In accordance with the mission outlined in Dr. Whitcomb’s email, SHP is becoming more diverse. According to SHP Admissions and the Office of Mission Culture and Strategy, the current sophomore class, the class of 2026, is the first in Prep history to have a white population of less than 50 percent, and the classes grow more diverse each year. However, the same is not reflected in our faculty and staff. While Sacred Heart’s white students at the Prep, LMS, and PSK comprise only 46 percent of the student body, white employees make up 61 percent of Sacred Heart’s entire workforce and 74 percent of the teaching faculty. 

This trend extends far beyond Sacred Heart. For instance, in 2022, 23 percent of students in California were white, while 63 percent of teachers were white. On the other hand, Latinx students made up the largest demographic, at 54 percent, while only 20 percent of teachers shared this identity. Indisputably, teachers do not represent the diverse body of students they strive to communicate with and connect to. This discrepancy is not only numerically illogical but contradictory to the numerous studies showing the positive impacts teachers of color have on students of all races. A 2017 study from the Brookings Institute confirms the direct relationship between the exposure of same-race or ethnicity teachers to minority students and their academic performance, graduation rates, standardized testing scores, and attendance.  Therefore, a lack of minority representation among teachers can harm students of color and limit them in both short-term academic achievement and long-term professional pursuits. 

Regardless of the quantitative–“report-card-record”–benefits, the presence of teachers of color immediately fortifies the authenticity of a community, especially at Sacred Heart. Ms. Ekta Shah, an English teacher at the Prep, shared that “Identity saturates whatever profession you’re in in many different ways, consciously or unconsciously… My presence makes an impact on my students and other students, even if they aren’t aware of it or even in my class. Seeing me in professional clothing, in an intellectual setting, can show students that a woman of color can be in this space and can occupy this space.” Students have reciprocated this sentiment. SHP junior, Ebo Biratu, shared that joining the Black Student Union upon entering the high school created a transformative atmosphere of belonging: “I have never felt more safe than I did in Ms. [Benjamin’s] classroom. I was able to show a side of myself that, often, institutions such as Sacred Heart don’t give the space for on a daily basis.” She continued, “Having diversity within the staff is essential, not just to fill some quota, but to have a person in authority who has shared the perspectives and stories of a minority of students.” Fellow junior, Chris Almazan, built upon this experience, expressing how “the recognition that ‘I am a person of color (POC) and you are a person of color’ strikes a unique sense of belonging when immersed in a white environment.” 

The impact of POC teachers is not a narrow, same-race impact either. As in any beautiful and functional home, there are windows and mirrors. In the grand mansion that is SHP, authenticity and kinship can only exist when there are windows into the experiences of all members of the community and mirrors that allow each individual to recognize and appreciate themselves in this space. 

Nevertheless, constructing such a community is no easy feat. Sacred Heart Schools Atherton’s 125-year history lays a critical foundation and permanent imprint on the school. As Dr. Benjamin Su, former English teacher and current director of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA), thoughtfully stated, “We are always entering into a context that we didn’t create.” Therefore, the approach to fostering belonging should be “‘how do I care for the community I’m in?’, rather than ‘how do I make the community like me?’” Accordingly, it is unreasonable to solely demand increased hiring of teachers of color. 

The root of SHP and the nation’s lack of representation in the educator workforce lies partly in the access to and the completion of higher education. A study conducted by Constance Lindsay, Erica Blom, and Alexandra Tilsley at the Urban Institute in 2017 found that Black and Latinx young adults held bachelor’s degrees at strikingly low rates of 21 percent and 16 percent respectively. This issue is derived from even greater flaws in America’s social systems, from redlining and wage gaps to deeply ingrained implicit bias. 

Catch-22. When there are fewer teachers of color, POC students perform at lower rates and feel greater isolation. If POC students perform at lower rates and lack a sense of belonging in their schools, one outcome is fewer POC teachers. Thus, there exists a perpetual cycle that disadvantages students of color and excludes people of color from pursuing essential careers in education. Unfortunately, it is out of the scope of SHP to remedy the countless psychological and systematic faults of the country. What can be done is the reinforcement of support systems for teachers of color at SHP and schools throughout the county. The last few years have been marked by an exodus of teachers, especially of minority races, from their professions, due to post-pandemic burnout and the omnipresence of divisive politics within the classroom. Although the conflict appears complex, the solution is simple: appreciation. Teachers are the veiled foundation of every groundbreaking discovery and patented invention. Teachers are the force behind every prestigious title and pretty diploma. Teachers sow the seeds of our passions and ambitions. So, when we can take a second to reciprocate a smile and muster a thank you; take a moment to recognize the influence teachers have on our lives, perhaps we could make schools a less lonely place for all. 

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