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Rochester Public Schools keeps striving to diversify its ranks to match its student population

Just less than half the student population at Rochester Public Schools is comprised of minorities. By contrast, the overwhelming majority of the teaching staff is white.

Will Ruffin II
Lincoln K-8 fifth-grade teacher Will Ruffin II gets down on the floor to help Emily West with a trivia game she is working on in March 2017. Ruffin is now the district's director of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Post Bulletin file photo

ROCHESTER — The teaching staff at Rochester Public Schools doesn't match the student population — and that's something that the district's leadership is trying to change.

Will Ruffin II, director of diversity, equity and inclusion, spoke with the Rochester School Board on Tuesday night about the work his department has been undertaking, including the effort to diversify the district's ranks.

"This is the most hopeful I've ever been in this school district — thinking that something for once will actually finally get better," Ruffin said about the department's work.

Throughout the district, approximately 4% of the teaching staff is comprised of teachers of color, whereas 43.7% of the district's student population is of color.

At some schools, minorities outnumber white students. At John Adams Middle School, students of color make up 54% of the student population.

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During the meeting, Ruffin explained how the district has received a Come Teach in Minnesota Grant, valued at $40,000. According to Equity Coordinator Willie Tipton, the grant will enable the district to provide hiring and retention bonuses to teachers of color who come to Minnesota to work.

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The district also has applied for a Grow Your Own grant, which would work to develop and retain teachers from the local community. Ruffin said the district should find out soon if it will be awarded that grant and how much funding comes with it.

Ruffin said the grants would provide funds to help develop local talent as well as bring in teachers from other locations.

Although the district has yet to reach its goal of diversifying its teaching staff to the degree it wants, it has started increasing the number of equity specialists in the district, bringing the total up to 12.

Rodney Sharp, an existing equity specialist, described the role as being "a bridge between home and school."

Ruffin said a survey of principals indicated they wanted some of the district's COVID-19 relief funds to be used to hire more equity specialists. He said that although equity specialists may not be teaching, they're able to provide a new perspective for the rest of the schools' staff to rely upon.

"It was loud and clear that they wanted equity specialists," Ruffin said. "We're going from good to better just by increasing our staff in a more diverse way."

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel cited several studies about the benefits of having a diverse staff. One study from Johns Hopkins University, he said, showed that Black students who had a Black teacher in kindergarten were 18 times more likely than their peers to enroll in college. He also cited statistics showing how Black students who had a Black teacher in elementary school were far less likely to drop out of high school.

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"A lot of us have felt that for a while, but we know it empirically now," Pekel said.

Ruffin was named director of diversity, equity and inclusion in May 2021 after the school board made a push to increase the district's equity work in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

When Pekel began his one-year contract with the district, building that department was one of the three goals he developed with the school board.

Although it has not all happened in the time since Pekel joined the district, Ruffin acknowledged the growth his department has experienced in recent years.

"For a while, it was just a position that was created. It wasn't a department," Ruffin said. "We have now morphed into this beautiful team."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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