Springfield Administrators Reflect and Model the Benefits of Diversity

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Democracy Program Director

Dating back as far as 2009, the McCormick Foundation, under the auspices of the Illinois Civic Mission Coalition, has worked with the DuPage County Regional Office of Education (ROE) to develop an administrator academy in civics. Like teachers, school administrators must accumulate continuing education credits in order to maintain their certification in the State of Illinois, and academies sponsored by ROE’s are one such vehicle.

While teachers will always be the heart and soul of our work to strengthen school-based civic learning in Illinois, administrators are another key stakeholder with the potential to lead their schools and districts in pursuit of their historic and contemporary civic mission. Lead teacher mentor Mary Ellen Daneels and I co-facilitate these academies. Mary Ellen engages participants in hands-on activities that demonstrate Illinois’ new K-12 social studies standards and high school civics course requirement, while I make the empirical case for civic learning more generally and the implementation of these new policies specifically.

After many fits and starts, we held our first academy a little over a year ago in Lombard, and have replicated the academy in Oglesby (Central Illinois), North Cook County, Wheaton, and last week in Springfield. It’s the latter academy that inspired today’s post.

Mary Ellen has cultivated a strong relationship with Springfield Public Schools District 86, as exemplified by last week’s academy, where every principal and assistant principal in the district, more than 80 in total, attended our academy at Southeast High School. I was struck immediately by the racial diversity represented among the administrative ranks. This isn’t coincidental, but instead a product of intentional recruiting by the district.

Superintendent Jennifer Gill reports that 25% of the district's administrators are nonwhite. Many of these individuals were former teachers in the district, which serves as an important pipeline, but simultaneously depletes diversity in the lower ranks. According to Bell, state universities are not cultivating a diverse teaching pool, so the district and others with similar priorities are forced to recruit elsewhere, at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for example.

It’s clear that more can and must be done to address these pipeline problems to mirror the increasing diversity of our student bodies. A majority of students in K-12 classrooms in Illinois are now nonwhite.

The benefits of this diversity were most apparent when Mary Ellen modeled a Facing History lesson on the integration of Central High School in Little Rock in 1957. Several administrators of color reflected on their own experiences and those of their parents.

One gentleman from Southern Arkansas shared that his mother helped integrate the local high school in 1969 that he would attend twenty years later. She encountered racism in many corners, and specifically the shamefully low expectations of her English teacher. Her son, the current Springfield administrator, counted this teacher among his favorites two decades later. It was clear that this teacher had been transformed by her experiences working with students of color.

Another administrator applied the lessons of Little Rock to present day. She’s an African-American female, but her student body has significant Latino representation, some of them hailing from families with undocumented parents. She painfully recounted the fear that many face when they registered their students for school, a constitutionally protected right regardless of citizenship status.

As we work to strengthen school-based civic learning in Illinois, we must keep the issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion front and center, as they are key to the sustenance of this grand experiment in democracy. After all, we are a nation founded not by color or creed, but instead an idea.

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