When Reyna Garcia began her senior year of high school at Heritage High School in Rogers, Arkansas, she sought out several teachers to ask for their help – and understanding.
The 17-year-old scholar was working almost fulltime, even as she maintained a 4.3 grade point average and led a club at her school to support fellow students for whom English is their second language.
“I told some of my teachers that I was working 30 hours a week because I needed to help my family. And they were really flexible with me,” said Reyna, who was born in Mexico and moved to Northwest Arkansas when she was 11. She credits one staff member, assistant principal Martin Resendiz, for understanding her situation and her potential and making an extra effort to help her succeed.
“I think he was the only Hispanic person (at my high school) I knew except for the school counselor,” says Reyna who graduated in 2021. “And he was always supporting me and finding out about new ways to get me out of my comfort zone.”
Her experience underscores the importance of building a pipeline of diverse teachers and school administrators – educators from the same backgrounds as the students they teach – to ensure all students in Northwest Arkansas have access to a high-quality education.
Dr. Debbie Jones, superintendent of Bentonville Public Schools, said school systems “have to be deliberate” about recruiting more diverse educators – and always evaluating whether they are successful or not.
“For 20 years, schools have been required to have a minority recruitment plan to recruit diverse teachers, but you have to deliberately look at those numbers and say: Is this good enough?” said Dr. Jones. At Bentonville Public Schools, “we are being very deliberate … in developing these pipelines of relationships” to bring more diversity to education.
The need is real: Students of color now make up a majority of K-12 classrooms nationwide, yet less than 1 in 5 educators identifies as people of color.
The demographic disparity is evident in Northwest Arkansas. In Benton and Washington counties, 58% of students are white but almost 94% of teachers are white. Meanwhile, 27% of the county's students are Hispanic, compared to only 2% of teachers.
Students of color now make up a majority of K-12 classrooms nationwide, yet less than 1 in 5 educators identifies as people of color.
Research makes the case for the benefits of diversity. Greater teacher diversity yields higher expectations, lower discipline referral rates and better academic results for all students, and especially students of color.
At the Walton Family Foundation, we are working with communities to build an inclusive educational environment in Northwest Arkansas that provides a strong education for every child. As part of our five-year strategy to achieve that goal, we are supporting community efforts to increase teacher diversity in the region’s classrooms as a way to ensure every student gets an education that puts opportunity within their reach.
Reyna saw an acute need for greater teacher diversity in her high school, where half of the student population was Hispanic.
“Considering that a large percentage of those Hispanic kids are ESL, I feel like they would benefit a lot from having a Hispanic teacher … someone who comes from the same background, someone who understands how hard it is to go to a new country to learn a new language,” she said.
The efforts to build a more diverse teacher pipeline are part of a broader community-driven effort to improve the educational ecosystem in Northwest Arkansas – to learn where it excels, where there is room for improvement and how residents and the community can support students.
“I do think we need to be more purposeful” in improving diversity among educators, said Jamie Deigh, a teacher with Bentonville Public Schools.
Jamie said Black parents often approach her at school events with questions like, “What grade do you teach? How can I get my kid in your classroom?” Jamie added that “kids also need to see people that look like them in the building” so they can make a connection to someone of a similar background.
“I want kids to be able to look at us and say, 'Hey, I could be a teacher when I grow up, or I could work at a school.' ”
At the foundation, we’re supporting communities that are building a deep and broad commitment to ensuring students feel seen, heard and understood— so they can envision a brighter and wider world of opportunities ahead.