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In Conversation With ... Diane Porter

Diane Porter

on recruiting and retaining diverse teachers in Jefferson County
 
Kentucky School Advocate
July/August 2019
 
In Conversation With … features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate. 

Diane Porter, chairwoman of the Jefferson County school board, was a teacher, counselor, assistant principal and principal before she joined the school board in 2010. Early this year, she received Louisville’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award, presented to citizens who dedicate their lives to justice, peace, freedom, nonviolence, racial equity and civic activism. 
 
Q: You’ve devoted more than 50 years to the Jefferson County Public Schools. Why is public education so important to you? 
 
A: Because I am a product of public education. It’s always been my passion to make sure that doors are open and opportunity is available for all students. When students need it, I want to be sure we’re giving them the extra things they need to be successful. 

Q: During your time on the board, the Jefferson County district has focused on increasing diversity among teachers. In the last six years, JCPS has nearly doubled the number of minorities it’s hired. How have you accomplished this?

A: My quick answer is board members can’t be involved with personnel. We get involved when we start getting reports as to how the district is doing. Recently, we have been talking about numbers of students versus numbers of teachers. We have increased the diversity of teachers over time because we were talking about it more and people are engaged and involved. 

Q: About 40 percent of Jefferson County students are black, but only 13 percent of teachers are black. Why is it so important to increase the number of educators of color in the Jefferson County classrooms?

A: Research tells us it’s extremely important for our students to have a teacher of color some time in their school career. Parents have told me that some students have gone all the way through JCPS and never seen a teacher of color.

Q: Really?

A: Yes. The fact that it’s a conversation means it’s something we need to pay attention to. I always talk about when I started my education. At that time, we still had segregated schools. The two teachers I remember at my elementary school were Miss White and Miss Wilson. They were both African-American. The love and support, plus the education they gave us was phenomenal. Whether it’s additional support for students or to see that adult as a role model, it is extremely importa nt.

The robotics team at Central High School, the Centrons, named their first robot in honor of Jefferson County school board chairwoman Diane Porter. (Photo provided by JCPS)Q: The board there is taking proactive steps to not just recruit these teachers who are diverse, but to develop them. One example is the partnership with Simmons College of Kentucky in Louisville.

A: Yes, the district signed an agreement for an initiative with Simmons. We feel this is another avenue for increasing teachers of color. There will be a class set up called Transition to Teaching, offered to students who have recently graduated from college and also students from Simmons. It provides a clinical opportunity to be in a JCPS classroom and for a mentorship for students interested in teaching. There will also be a practice exam, which students have to pass in order to become a teacher. Simmons is working toward getting its accreditation as the partnership goes forward. It is a HBCU, a historically black college and university, that has been responsive in graduating a lot of teachers. 

Q.  This partnership isn’t the only way the district is trying to recruit and retain teachers of color. Describe some other initiatives.

A: There is going to be a residency program to embrace students as they’re finishing their junior or senior year. We currently, in the district, have a teacher ed program at two schools for high school students who are interested in going into education. That’s not a new program, but it is another avenue to get students interested and encourage them to move forward. Students today have so many career choices. We want to keep teaching at the top of the list. We want them to know how important their contribution will be. I always tell people, “Close your eyes and think of your most favorite teacher.” How do you want to model that? Does that help you understand the importance of teaching as a career?

Q. Is there anything specific the district is doing to help retain teachers of diverse backgrounds?

A: One significant aspect of this initiative with Simmons is that we’re asking for mentors and volunteers to work with students and keep them encouraged. 

Q. Talk about the racial equity plan that the board passed earlier this year and why it is important.

A: The plan gives us a written structure to follow, as opposed to just saying, “I wish we would do this.” The plan was done by an advisory committee. There’s another committee that’s overlooking the work. So, it’s not something that involved just a few people. There was outreach and an effort to get people involved. We can now ask, “Are we doing this because it’s in the plan?” This gives us a guideline that will be a part of our district for years to come. I’m sure that it will be adjusted and modified, but not many districts in the country have been bold and courageous enough to step out and do something like this.

Q: And I understand that while board members weren’t part of the advisory group, they could attend meetings?

A: Board members were welcome to attend the meetings and listen. We are not a part of the overall advisory group either. We have to stay in our lane and allow them to do their work. They came to us with a plan to approve. 

Q. You received Louisville’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Award for your work to bring equity to education. How did it feel to be awarded this honor in Dr. King’s name?

A: I was surprised, humbled and honored. As I told the mayor, I never think about awards. I just get up every day and do what’s in my heart to help kids. It is, indeed, an honor and I am blessed.

Q. As chairwoman of the board, you were called a “quiet storm.” What does that mean? How have you been able to guide the board?

A: I’ve heard quiet storm and I’ve heard wolf with a velvet gavel. Those are not my words, so you're going to have to ask some of the people that have said it exactly what that means. People think I’m that quiet. I liked to hear that. I think I do have the ability to listen and try to absorb. When I respond, I hope it’s in a helpful way. I have tried to allow board members to express their thoughts at meetings and sometimes people think that’s too much. Other times, when we are doing the work of the board, I have tried hard to make sure that all board members are at the table, when possible, when decisions are being made. 

Q: It’s been a year since the state threatened to take over JCPS and two years since superintendent Dr. Marty Pollio was hired. What has been the biggest change at Jefferson County Schools during that time?

A: I think we are focused and intentional with our work educating our children. We know that there are people looking at not only the quantity, but the quality of our work. I think that we’re moving forward to keep our district our district.

Q: What makes you excited and hopeful for the future of your district?

A: Knowing that education is not an option. It’s something that we must do well. What makes me most excited is going into my schools. Whenever I need a little energy, I just go to a school. I don’t bother the kids, but I like watching them work and seeing them in the halls. I’m always excited about how we can do things better, how we are reaching our kids better. The older I get, I’m limited on how many places I can get to every day and night, but I continue to be there. It’s as much a part of the job as being at a board meeting. That’s my personal perspective.
 
Photo: The robotics team at Central High School, the Centrons, named their first robot in honor of Jefferson County school board chairwoman Diane Porter. (Photo provided by JCPS) 

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