YAKIMA, Wash. — Erica Rodriguez, a second-grade teacher at Barge-Lincoln Elementary School in Yakima, was a child of immigrants who left Monterrey, Mexico, to work in the fields around Othello.

Rodriguez remembers that in grade school, she had few minority teachers, which she says influenced her decision to become an educator so more minority students would have role models.

“I wanted to tell (and show) kids they could get out of field work and not follow their parents,” said Rodriguez, who has been teaching for 15 years.

But today, Rodriguez and other minority teachers still aren’t represented in numbers that reflect the student population of schools up and down the Yakima Valley.

While the number of minority college students keeps growing, their interest in teaching remains low. For a number of reasons, teaching is simply not as appealing as other careers.

State data show that the racial and ethnic breakdown of Washington’s teachers does not mirror the demographics in the classrooms.

Last school year, about 59 percent of public school students identified themselves as white, according to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Meanwhile, the percentage of teachers that identified as white was about 87 percent, according to the state’s Professional Educator Standards Board.

The disparity is far higher in the Yakima Valley, where minorities often make up the majority of students. Ten-year statewide and local data from the standards board show that while there’s been a slight increase in teachers identifying as minorities, their numbers are still dwarfed by teachers who identify as white.

In local school districts, where minority student populations can exceed 90 percent, the percentage of teachers identifying as non-white ranged from zero to a “high” of 33 percent in Grandview.

In the Yakima School District, easily the Valley’s largest, 75 percent of students are Hispanic but 80 percent of teachers are white.

In Yakima, these disparities are obvious, but there isn’t much officials can do to improve them, said Kelly Garza, assistant superintendent for human resources. For starters, the pool of minority teachers to recruit from is already small.

What’s more, some minority candidates do not stand out during the screening process and the district “may have to pass them up” for better choices. The Yakima School District, in the end, is looking for the best teachers out there regardless of race, he said.

“It is tough to get highly qualified, endorsed minorities,” said Garza, himself a former teacher and principal in the Wapato School District.

Sunnyside, the region’s second-largest school district, recently contracted with a recruiter who travels to colleges in the region in hopes of finding interested candidates — particularly Hispanic and bilingual teachers, who are the most coveted in a district where almost 92 percent of students last school year were Hispanic, according to OSPI.

Curtis Campbell, director of executive services for the Sunnyside School District, said it’s a priority to try and have the teacher workforce reflect the student population.

In order to make it happen, however, Campbell said the district needs more minorities to apply.

“This year, we saw a greater mix (applying) — not just in candidates but the candidates who fit in with the position,” he said.

Why do minorities avoid teaching?

There are numerous reasons why teaching is not high on many minority students’ radars.

“They go into more lucrative jobs,” said Ivy Butler, 34, who identifies as African-American, referring to engineering and medicine.

The average salary for a Washington public school teacher last school year was $52,223, according to the state superintendent’s office. The average salary for a mechanical engineer last year, on the other hand, was $84,770, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When she was a grade school student in Denver, and later in Mukilteo, Butler didn’t have many minority teachers.

“If a kid sees someone that looks like them, they might say, ‘Oh, I might consider doing that,’” she said.

Like her mother, Butler wants to be a teacher and is studying general science education at Central Washington University with hopes of teaching high school one day.

Many minority students after finishing grade school may not want to relive the school experience as a teacher, said Ner Garza, an ESL teacher at Davis High School.

But Garza did not mind going back to the classroom and he’s now in his 25th year of teaching.

His family had migrated from the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon to Prosser when he was a child and he eventually attended Yakima Valley Community College, Central Washington University and Heritage University.

Mea Moore, interim dean of Heritage University’s College of Education and Psychology, said family opinions about the teaching profession come into the picture — especially with first-generation college students.

“First-gen students tend to overlook education as a respected profession and are more geared toward engineering, medicine, law, math and sciences ... just because the cachet of those professions have a higher perceptual value in a community,” said Moore.

Recruiting efforts

Heritage is one of many schools and groups in the state trying to recruit more minorities to study education.

At Heritage, where almost 66 percent of students identified themselves as minorities last year, education majors are enrolling in HU 105, a federally funded joint venture between Heritage and Educational Service District 105, an umbrella organization that provides a wide range of services to school districts in Central Washington.

The venture places prospective teachers into local schools for two years under what is essentially an extended student teaching program.

The goal of the program, funded through 2015, is to drive home the connection between the job and the community the student teachers are working in, Moore said. Making that connection is important because many teachers in high-need districts tend to relocate and new hires get brought in as replacements, creating what Moore describes as a revolving door effect.

Under HU 105, which has a high number of minorities interested in teaching, students spend much longer time in the classrooms compared to the average student-teacher. Many of them are local and come from backgrounds similar to the schoolchildren, Moore said. Having the children work with teachers they can identify with could inspire them to follow in their footsteps.

At least 20 percent of students studying education at CWU are minorities, but the university is trying to bump up those numbers, said Connie Lambert, dean of the College Of Education And Professional Studies.

Furthermore, the university is partnering with some school districts west of the Cascades for the Recruiting Washington Teachers grant program, which helps recruit minority high school students into education careers.

The statewide initiative, enacted by the Legislature in 2007, had a program in the Yakima Valley until last year when funding was cut.

Lambert said colleges are doing their part to narrow the ethnicity with programs like Recruiting Washington Teachers and HU 105.

“The teachers need to reflect the diverse body of the classrooms,” she said.

The Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee was created by the Legislature years ago to address the perceived academic disparities between students of different racial, social and economic backgrounds.

Lillian Ortiz-Self, co-chairwoman of the panel, said the committee recommended creating incentives for students to pursue teaching careers, providing services for minority teachers to cope with problems they may face, offering financial assistance and providing diversity and language training.

Colleges and universities statewide, in general, have not been doing enough to bring more diversity into the teaching field, said Wanda Brown-Billingsly, a committee member as well as a legislative representative for the state Commission on African American Affairs.

While she points at Heritage as an exception, Brown-Billingsly said she’s surprised that few minorities at the larger universities want to become teachers.

“I wouldn’t say the landscape is very good,” she said. “I don’t think the universities are doing a good job maintaining a pipeline” of minority students interested in teaching.

• Rafael Guerrero can be reached at 509-577-7853 or rguerrero@yakimaherald.com.