FARGO - A strong jobs climate in Fargo-Moorhead has for years attracted people of all backgrounds from across the United States to chase the American dream.

Many immigrants and refugees from Asia, Africa and the Middle East have also settled here and found safety, new jobs, and new, productive lives.

The children in our schools reflect this diversity. About a quarter of students in Fargo, Moorhead or West Fargo schools identify themselves as ethnically Asian, African American, Hispanic, Native American or Pacific Islander, according to 2015-16 school year data requested by The Forum.

On the other hand, the teaching and administrative staffs are almost monolithically white. During the last school year, there were more than 2,400 teachers between the Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo school districts. In each district, more than 98 percent of the teachers were white. The three districts had nearly 160 administrators, and all but two are white.

The diversity gap - really, a chasm - for teaching staffs is seen in varying degrees around much of the U.S., but is especially stark here. It's more pronounced than the statewide gap in either North Dakota or Minnesota, data from the states shows.

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In North Dakota, 96.7 percent of the 8,807 public school teachers were white last year. In Minnesota, 95.7 percent of the 56,150 full-time equivalent teaching positions were held by whites.

Closing the diversity gap presents a daunting task, education experts say. But they add that it is a worthy challenge.

Diversity fosters connections

Vince Williams is the lone dot of color as a black man in an otherwise all-white administrative cadre for the Fargo School District.

Williams is the English Learners coordinator for the district and assistant principal at the district's alternative high school, Woodrow Wilson High School at Agassiz School. He also teaches at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

Williams said he's big on relationship-building, and it can sometimes be easier for black students to connect with black teachers.

"I think students definitely need to see someone who looks like them or similar to them in positions of authority within the school setting," Williams said.

Williams is not alone in that thinking.

Rigo Castillon is a Spanish teacher at Moorhead High School. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up here. He said as a Hispanic man, he would count himself as white on the U.S. Census. But there's more than skin color to ethnicity, he said. There's a richness of culture, too.

That's why making teaching more diverse should be a priority, Castillon said.

"They are going to find that common bond with people that are like them," he said of students. "Kids appreciate people who have had experiences that are similar to theirs. They do appreciate it."

This is Lewis Grant's first full year of teaching for the West Fargo School District. The son of a Jamaican father and a British mother teaches graphic communications and photography at Sheyenne and West Fargo high schools. He's also coached basketball for several years in West Fargo and now also coaches soccer.

Given the area's increasing ethnic diversity, Grant, said it would be a wise to invest in molding the teaching and administrative staffs to better reflect that diversity.

"It's another opportunity to connect" with students, he said.

Easier said than done

Making the teaching profession more diverse won't be easy.

The National Council on Teacher Quality and the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy focused on the problem in a recent study. The authors found that the pool of minority teachers not only does not match the diversity of the nation's students, they predicted the mismatch would grow.

Minority students now make up about half of the nation's K-12 students, but only about 18 percent of teachers are minorities.

The study identified four areas that contribute to the diversity gap:

• Smaller proportions of blacks and Hispanics earn a college degree, which is needed to become a teacher.

• More white students major in education (7 percent, compared to 4 percent of blacks and 4 percent of Hispanics), and a higher percentage of white education majors actually say they want to teach (95 percent, compared to 76 percent of blacks and 90 percent of Hispanics).

• After students graduate, white education majors are hired at greater rates than minority education majors.

• White teachers have slightly higher retention rates than minority teachers.

Jeanette Hoffman, an assistant education professor at North Dakota State University, said the school had 103 students in the education program in fall 2014. Of those, two identified as Hispanic and one as American Indian.

"We talk about why people choose teaching," she said. "More often than not, it's because people had a positive experience."

Hoffman said we need to look at the education system and its policies to find out who gets discouraged from thinking about teaching and who gets the support.

"We in teacher education have to make it more accessible to students of color;" she said.

Gary Thompson, dean of education and graduate studies at Valley City State University, said about 8 to 9 percent of VCSU education students are minorities, he said.

One problem is the perception that being a teacher lacks prestige, Thompson said.

An effort needs to be made to get high school students to think of the classroom as a place to "make a difference in the lives of those they teach," he said.

Not quite right

John Benson, a professor and department chairman in MSUM's School of Teaching and Learning, said the school has tried many initiatives to change the overwhelmingly white and female make-up of its undergraduate classes.

Benson grew up in Africa, the son of missionaries, and his first teaching job was in south Texas, teaching mostly Hispanic students.

"I think so many minorities have had such a hard experience in school" that many shy away from the idea of teaching as a career, he said. "I would hope that some can get past that and think of schools as a place that they can make a difference.

"Today, it hurts to see that we aren't as diverse," Benson said. "All of us really want it, but it's hard to know how to do it. It's just amazing that we do remain such a white teaching body. It doesn't seem quite right."

North Dakota has been examining teacher equity for about two years, said Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent of public instruction.

More work needs to be done to recruit minority students into teaching, she said, and to find alternate ways to license people with bachelor's degrees in needed disciplines to teach.

College scholarships for those who want to be teachers, more loan forgiveness and raising teacher salaries would all help, Baesler said.

Distance learning opportunities to gain education or teaching degrees could also help people in rural, isolated communities, she said.

"In the end, our students benefit," Baesler said.

Perceptions hurt image

Students at Fargo's Woodrow Wilson High School like the idea of a more diverse teaching staff, but of the group who talked with The Forum, none were ready to commit to a course of study to lead the charge.

"It would be nice to have ethnicity in schools," said senior Nathan Steele. "It just feels like it broadens our horizons more. If you are going to school and all you have are white teachers, you can develop racism. Just seeing other diversity in school can help with that."

At the same time, Steele, who is white, said teachers don't get paid enough to do what they do.

"They get paid so little to deal with what they deal with," he said.

Senior Milinda Turner likes the fact that Woodrow Wilson has an African-American teacher and assistant principal.

"When I was at other schools, you didn't see many African-American teachers there," she said. "And when I moved here, there was an African-American teacher. It was shocking, but then it was like, 'Oh wow! Now I have a teacher that kind of looks like me, and I can relate.' "

Turner said she's looking at other career fields. She, too, believes teachers are underpaid.

"They're doing everything to make sure that we get it," Turner said. "It's crazy. I feel like teachers should make more than doctors."

Senior Josette Rodriguez said having a diverse group of teachers "would be kind of cool, because you can say, 'Hey, that could be me in a few years.' ... It would be pretty amazing."

But from her perspective, the workload of teachers is too heavy. "It's a lot of work."

Recruiting is tough

Without a lot of minority teaching graduates in the pipeline, it's hard to recruit them to work in this area, said Moorhead schools Superintendent Lynne Kovash.

And in Minnesota, there have been difficulties in licensing teachers from other states, she said.

"If you can find the answers, I'd be more than happy. This is a dilemma for us," she said. "I want students to see themselves as educators, as teachers, as leaders."

The Minneapolis and St. Paul metro is also tough to beat, Kovash said.

"Oftentimes, we think we have someone hired, and they get offered a job in the Twin Cities," she said.

The Fargo School District recruits from colleges throughout North Dakota and Minnesota, even purchasing a "diversity package" for advertising, said Human Resources Director Brittnee Nikle.

"We don't have a lot of diverse applicants ... at this time, even with the outreach that goes on," she said.

Kovash wonders if the area might not need a "Grow Our Own" philosophy, including scholarships for students of color to take up teaching.

Otherwise, "at this point I don't see anything in sight" to change the current trend, Kovash said.