The majority of Salt Lake City students aren’t white. Why are most of its teachers?

In Salt Lake City, school district leaders are pushing for a more diverse workforce.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bianca Mittendorf, the Utah Education Association's director of equity and membership, in Ogden on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024. When educators don't reflect the student population, there’s a “lack of cultural competence,” Mittendorf said.

Sometimes, Diana Mayorga shows up late to class. But that’s because, from time to time, she has to take her little sister to day care in the morning.

The East High School junior has had to talk with her guidance counselor about it, who told Diana it’s not her responsibility to be a second parent, Diana said.

“To me, that just felt very harsh, because my mom is a single mother, and any help that I can give her, I will give her,” she said.

So Diana, whose parents are from Guatemala, instead turned to the one teacher she felt could understand her situation, because she came from a similar cultural background: Sandy Bracamontes, adviser to the school’s Latino Student Union.

“She understood it was a struggle I couldn’t walk away from,” she said.

Experiences like Diana’s are why Salt Lake City School District leaders noted at the start of this school year that hiring more diverse teachers and administrators is a district priority.

About 33.7% of district students are English-language learners or multi-language learners, according to Salt Lake City School District demographic reports. The district has also referred to itself as a “minority majority” district, because it enrolls more ethnic minority students than white students.

Board member Kristi Swett specifically told colleagues at a September board meeting that she would like to see the district hire “teachers and administrators that look like our kids,” as well as more staff who are bilingual, in order to better communicate with district students.

Breaking down school district demographics

In Salt Lake City, Granite and Davis school districts, a majority of full-time district staff are white, according to Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) reports, which are required demographic reporting.

Full-time employees listed under those EEO reports include teachers, principals, guidance counselors, teacher aids and administrators.

At the start of this school year, the Salt Lake City district reported that around 80% of full-time staff — or 1,599 of 2,000 — are white. About 14% identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Student demographics differ. Around 39% identify as Hispanic or Latino, the reports state, while 41% are white. Collectively, about 5% of students are Black, Asian, Pacific Islander, or multiracial, while 1% of students are American Indian/Alaskan Native.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In Davis on the other hand, 92% of teachers are white compared to 80% of students in that same category. A little over 4% of teachers are Hispanic/Latino, compared to 14% of students.

Granite, comparatively, reported a lower percentage of white teachers amongst full-time staff, sitting at 67%, according to its 2022 figures. The second-highest teacher demographic was multiracial educators, at around 27%.

Granite is also considered a “minority majority” district: of its student population, 46% are white. The second-highest demographic was Hispanic/Latino, accounting for about 39% of students.

Lack of diversity can mean ‘lack of cultural competence’

Diana’s first teacher, at Salt Lake City’s Edison Elementary, did not speak Spanish, she said. But her teacher’s assistant, along with many other teaching assistants at the school, did. And that helped Diana and her mother, who both didn’t speak much English at the time.

“Having someone who can communicate with [my mother] just means the world to her, because it makes her feel included and not any lesser,” she said.

That’s why hiring more teachers who share similar backgrounds with their students is important, said Bianca Mittendorf, director of equity and membership at the Utah Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

When educators don’t reflect the student population, there’s a “lack of cultural competence,” said Mittendorf, who previously worked as a teacher and a district administrator in Davis School District.

“The norm is set to a standard that benefits those who have mainstream identities,” she said, which “does not include individuals who have marginalized identities, like people who are [Black, Indigenous and people of color], LGBTQ, who are living with a disability.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bianca Mittendorf, the Utah Education Association's Director of equity and membership, in Ogden on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024.

But hiring more teachers of color isn’t necessarily about finding a perfect percentage to match the student population, said Irene Yoon, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah.

It’s about whether kids “have someone they can find a relationship with as an adult,” and whether there is “enough variety of what personhood and what adulthood can look like.”

To do that, districts must first create spaces where educators of color can feel safe, because “they are going to encounter challenges that are going to happen, by trying to live and work in a predominantly white environment,” Mittendorf said.

Yet in a state where lawmakers are pushing anti-DEI bills, and state laws enacted in the past year have restricted what teachers can teach in the classroom related to diverse concepts, both Mittendorf and Yoon have heard future educators are becoming more hesitant to teach in the state.

“[Teachers] don’t know if they’re violating some rule, or if they’re going to get some sort of reprimand for trying to teach honest history,” Mittendorf said.

What are districts doing to diversify?

Creating safe, supportive spaces is one of many steps that te Salt Lake City School District has taken to recruit and retain teachers of different backgrounds.

One initiative that Logan Hall, the district’s director of human resources, said he is especially proud of is the district’s Peer Assistance and Review program — or PAR — where new teachers are paired with mentors for support and coaching, to help increase retention.

“Teaching is complex and can be very, very difficult,” Hall said. “But it’s also the most rewarding job you can have.”

The Salt Lake City district also has a “very robust” Grow Your Own educator program, part of a statewide program that offers scholarship funds for aspiring teachers to go to college.

The district encourages all students to become teachers, Hall said, but the program has especially helped officials “recruit from people who are in the communities that represent our student population.”

In a statement, Davis School District spokesperson Christopher Williams wrote that the district hires “a similar proportion” of teacher applicant pools “from each demographic group,” but searches for educators “no matter the origin, race, age or life experience.”

“If we find educators who help us meet that goal, we will employ those people to help us build the best K-12 education system possible,” Williams said.

Davis has previously been under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for ignoring racial harassment in its schools, much of which was targeted toward Black and Asian students, federal investigators found. About two weeks after the DOJ publicly released a report on its findings, 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor died by suicide after reports of racist and ableist bullying, which family and community members said were continually ignored by the district.

The district not only agreed to a $2 million settlement with Izzy’s family last year, but also a separate $200,000 settlement after three Black students said they experienced racial discrimination even after the Justice Department’s findings and recommendations.

A former employee hired to help the district investigate racial harassment complaints in the wake of the DOJ’s investigation also recently sued the district, alleging she was subjected to racial discrimination.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dr. Elizabeth Grant, superintendent of Salt Lake School District, right, and sixth grade dual language immersion teacher Amaia Lema, welcome students on the first day of school at Mary W. Jackson Elementary, August 22, 2023.

Even with concerted efforts to build out a more diverse workforce, hiring teachers amid a national teacher shortage following the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic remains difficult, said Granite spokesperson Ben Horsley.

He said finding quality educators is the district’s first priority. He added that he believes the district’s hiring strategies and locations — which he declined to disclose — have helped lead to its higher multi-racial, full-time educator population, “because it does matter.”

Mittendorf emphasized that prioritizing the hiring of more diverse educations is not equivalent to taking opportunities away from white students. That’s because every single student, she said, “should be able to recall in their educational career when they’ve had a Black teacher, when they’ve had a Latino teacher.”

It helps students “shape their worldview,” she added, so that “as they get older, hopefully they don’t fall victim to stereotypes or different biases because they’ve never experienced [Black, Indigenous and people of color] educators, or have seen various [Black, Indigenous and people of color] people in various positions of power.”