By Monique Harrison
Nathaniel Stone, an educator of 34 years, remembers when black teachers and administrators were nothing unusual.
“Before desegregation, of course, there were a lot of minority teachers because there were all-minority schools,” the principal of Milam Intermediate School said. “And even after desegregation, there were a lot of black teachers and blacks were in administrations.”
But today, Stone finds himself struggling to find minority teachers to fill vacancies.
“I’ve seen a real decrease,” he said. “Blacks are going into other fields that offer more money. There are more opportunities, so for economic reasons, blacks aren’t becoming teachers.”
It’s a shortage officials in Tupelo Public Schools and Lee County Schools say they grapple with every time there is a staff vacancy.
“We are concerned,” said Dr. Glenn McGee, assistant superintendent of Tupelo Public Schools. “It’s frightening to see the number of minorities who are retiring and the low number of minority applicants we have to choose from.”
Finding African-Americans to fill top district positions is particularly tough, McGee said.
There are currently only four blacks in administrative positions in Tupelo. Of those four administrators, two have announced plans to retire at the end of this year. Statewide, 28 percent of all teachers, administrators, librarians and counselors are minorities, according to statistics provided by the Mississippi Department of Education. There are no state statistics available on the percentage of minorities in administration.
In Lee County, the number of minority administrators is also low. Two assistant principals in the nine-school district are black, while there are no minority principals.
School district officials say they are doing all they can to move qualified minorities into upper-level positions.
But Lee County School Board member Tom Lyles says the district has a history of ignoring opportunities to put blacks in administration.
Last month, for example, the board voted to transfer Mooreville High School Principal Joe Loden to the assistant principal post at Verona School. Loden replaced Nick Umber, who was recently named to replace retired Federal Programs Coordinator Buddy Ramage. Both Loden and Umber are white.
“There were minority candidates in the running,” Lyles said. “But the school board decided to move Mr. Loden … and to move a man from a position as principal to one of assistant principal at another school doesn’t make sense. They had the chance to hire a black – a qualified black. And they didn’t do it.”
Lyles abstained in the 3-0 vote. Board member Donald Monoghan was out of town and did not vote.
But Lee County Schools Superintendent Lynn Lindsey said qualification and not race was the determining factor in the decision to name Loden to the job.
“We had seven or eight applicants, but Mr. Loden was the only one with both elementary experience and administrative experience,” Lindsey said. “If someone doesn’t have the experience, we’re not going to put them in the position.”
Lindsey also said that Verona School Principal Ed Cooley had recommended Loden to the position.
“We follow the recommendation of the principal in most cases,” he said. “If the principal feels like they can work well with a particular person, that’s who we put in that school.”
Still, Stone said taking the recommendations of principals can cause problems – particularly when black females are being considered for jobs.
“The problem with (relying) heavily on a person’s word is that people tend to hire their friends -like to work with them,” Stone said. “So, it’s hard for black women. They don’t know anyone making the decisions.”
Joyner Elementary School Principal Hazel Eatmon -the only black female administrator in Tupelo or Lee County Schools -said she hasn’t experienced that problem.
“I haven’t had that problem personally,” she said.
Eatmon said she hasn’t interviewed a single black candidate who was both certified to teach and interested in coming to the district.
This year, blacks account for about 34 percent of the 8,783 students majoring in education at Mississippi’s public colleges and universities, according to statistics provided by the Institutions of Higher Learning. That percentage has remained relatively constant for the past five years.
Of that 34 percent, many remain in school to earn master’s degrees, while many others are lured into business, where starting pay is typically much higher.
Others have already committed to work in impoverished areas such as the Mississippi Delta, where teacher shortages are critical. The commitment is part of a government program that allows students to work off student loans by working in areas they might otherwise avoid.
Some educators say special efforts aren’t necessary to recruit minorities because the race of a teacher does not impact their ability to teach children.
But others say schools run more smoothly when the faculty is representative of the student body.
“I’m not saying that I treat black children any differently than white children,” Stone said. “But children are more comfortable and open up around people that look like them – have their cultural (background). That’s the case with white children and black children. It’s a fact of life.”
McGee said the district’s problem is twofold.
“First, there’s a shortage of minorities within education,” McGee said. “They are going into business or medicine – fields that pay more.”
And when minorities do go into education, there’s still a problem.
“Most people coming out of college are relatively young -22 or so,” McGee said. “Places like Memphis or Atlanta have more to offer younger people than a place like Tupelo.”
Larger cities also have something more tangible to offer.
Starting teachers in the Memphis area, for example, can expect to earn $26,000 annually. In Tupelo and Lee County, starting teachers make under $23,000.
Officials say they are limited in their efforts to bring minority educators to the county.
Representatives from both districts visit college campuses throughout Mississippi and adjoining states, working to lure teachers – and particularly minority teachers – to the area.
Tupelo officials also encourage education majors from nearby colleges and universities to participate in workshops and seminars most districts only open to their own staffs.
“It might not seem like much,” said McGee. “But we are doing what we can to bring in minority teachers.”
Still, Stone said he thinks some administrators aren’t doing all they can to help minorities break into education.
“You look at the number of black teachers I have here,” said Stone, whose school has eight minority instructors. “I have more than most schools because I’ve looked for them. If you look – really look and really advertise -you can find minorities. You just have to make a commitment.”