Kiki Ochoa leads a discussion in his Lincoln High School classroom. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

For probably the first time in U.S. history, presidential candidates are making the diversity of the country’s teacher corps a central talking point of the campaign.

The candidates’ proposals vary, but most have signaled their willingness to invest actual dollars in teacher training programs that would benefit would-be teachers of color, according to Chalkbeat.

We’ve all been to school, so the lack of teacher diversity should be obvious to just about anyone. But in case you didn’t know, 80 percent of teachers are white.

What is not so obvious is that the stakes for diversifying the teacher corps couldn’t possibly be higher. The benefits for students of color who have teachers of color early in school are shocking, according to an emerging body of research.

According to one study, black students who had just one black teacher before they entered fourth grade were 13 percent more likely to go to college. Black students who had two black teachers before fourth grade were 32 percent more likely to go to college.

Black and Latino students are more likely to be referred to gifted programs by teachers of color, according to another study, as Chalkbeat noted. Another study found black teachers are less likely to expel or suspend black students.

Given the importance to educational outcomes, I wanted to find out which districts around the county are doing particularly well with staffing diversity …  and which districts aren’t.

My first takeaway: San Ysidro Elementary School District, which operates seven schools in the South Bay, is miles ahead of other districts in terms of staff diversity.

Before I get further into the findings, let me first explain how I did the comparison. First, I looked at the percentage of students of color who live within a school district. Then I compared that to the percentage of teachers of color who work within a district. (Both numbers come from the state Department of Education.) Then I gave each a simple diversity score.

You can see the entire database of San Diego County school districts here.

If a district had 60 percent students of color and also 60 percent teachers of color, it would score a 10. If it had 60 percent students of color and 40 percent teachers of color, it would score a 6.7. If it had 60 percent students of color and 0 percent teachers of color, it would score a 0.  Hopefully, you get the idea.

San Ysidro Elementary School District – with 98 percent students of color and 81 percent teachers of color – scored an 8.3. The next closest, National School District, scored a 5.9. Cardiff Elementary School District in North County – with 27 percent students of color and not a single teacher of color – scored a 0.

Grossmont Union High School District and Poway Unified School District, two of the larger districts in the county, also scored very poorly.

I asked Manuela Colom, who runs the curriculum department at San Ysidro Elementary School District , if she had any insight into how the district is doing so well with staffing diversity. Her answer was not something that could be easily translated into policy.

First she told me about how the district, in years past, made a concerted effort to hire teachers who were certified to teach bilingual classes. This surely helped, she said, but now it has become much harder to hire teachers, so the initiative ended.

San Ysidro itself is very diverse. (In fact, the four most diverse district staffs are located in the South Bay.) And Colom pointed to a strong sense of community as the reason the district is able to hire and retain diverse teachers.

“We have a lot of people who live in this community and went to school in this community and want to give back. There are a lot of administrators and teachers who went to school here,” she said. “We all feel very connected to the community and to the kids, and that’s why people come and stay here. It feels good to be different. It feels good to be diverse.”

Colom has been in the district 34 years. She came as a grad student and never left.

The mechanics of attracting and retaining more teachers of color are extremely difficult, said Jag Lathan, the director of equity at the San Diego County Office of Education.

Teacher pay varies wildly across states. Attracting teachers of color in states where pay is extremely low is difficult, she said.

But the problem is even more deeply rooted. Many people of color do not have a good experience in public schools, Lathan said.

“From my perspective as an African-American woman, I didn’t always have a good experience in schools. Generally it was good, but I know plenty of people who didn’t have a good experience, at all. How can we expect people to go into teaching if school wasn’t a good experience for them?” she said.

A lack of engaging curriculum can also be a problem, Lathan said. Many students of color do not see themselves reflected in the stories being told in their classrooms. That might also decrease the chances that a person of color goes into teaching, she said.

California recently pulled back on an effort that would have required all high school graduates to take an ethnic studies class.

The plans currently being floated by Democratic presidential contenders focus on putting more money into teacher training programs. In some cases, those plans would direct money to states. Others have suggested directing money specifically to historically black colleges and universities for teacher training.

For my part, as a white guy, it’s a very difficult exercise to imagine walking through the world of schools as a person of color. In rural North Carolina, I had almost no teachers of color. (Against all odds, my first grade teacher was black.) The system invited me warmly inside its walls every day. And it constantly affirmed all the versions of myself that might be possible in the world.

I saw myself in history, whether taking the first step on the moon or the first step off the Mayflower. I saw myself in the future, as an engineer or a president. Most importantly of all, I saw myself standing there at the front of the room every day. If I wanted to be a teacher or a principal, the system stood ready and willing to accept me with open arms.

To so many of my non-white peers, it must have felt the exact opposite.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at

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