Why we need representation in schools: Insights from a school administrator

POINT OF VIEW


At a time when the Education sector is increasingly politicized, the issue of representation within school systems is more pertinent than ever. To delve into the need for more representation, the New Hampshire Center for Justice and Equity (NHCJE) spoke with Jerold White, assistant principal at Manchester West High School and the first black male to hold an administrative position there.

Mr. White, now in his second year as assistant principal, provides invaluable insights into the reality at one of the most diverse schools in New Hampshire. From shaping teacher pedagogy to fostering student growth and managing disciplinary matters, his role spans a wide spectrum of responsibilities. His advocacy for representation in schools stems from a blend of personal experiences and observations made throughout his long career in education.


Jerold White: “I spent about 19 years as an educator in Massachusetts where the demographic is a little different. I think, right now, I am one of three administrators of color in the Manchester school district. One of the first questions I was asked during my job interview was ‘You’re going to be the first person that walks these halls as a black male administrator. How does that make you feel?’ All I could think of was the weight of being the first – what if I fail?”

The Impact of Disparities in Representation

NHCJE: New Hampshire is a rapidly diversifying state, with Southern municipalities at the forefront of racial and ethnic diversity. A NHCJE demographic brief reported that New Hampshire’s Diversity Index increased from 15% in 2010 to 24% in 2020, with 10% increases observed in Hillsborough and Sullivan Counties. Besides being New Hampshire’s largest school district, Manchester is among the most diverse places in the state. A 2021 report from UNH  shows that the adult population in Manchester is 22% minority, well above the state total of 11.1%.

Additionally, NH Department of Education data compiled by NHPR shows that nearly half of the students in Manchester’s public schools are now non-white — predominantly Latino (28.6%) or Black (10.8%). However, the same applies to less than 5% of Manchester’s school staff, according to the same report. The need for BIPOC representation among educators is evident.

Jerold White: “I’d say the impact of lack of representation is that it doesn’t give students something to look forward to. It doesn’t give them somebody they can relate to and who intrinsically understands them.”


NHCJE: Mr. White underscores the profound implications of this lack of representation, particularly for students of color. The absence of educators who share their cultural backgrounds and life experiences means that these students don’t have vital role models at school, hindering their sense of belonging and potentially stalling their academic progress. Moreover, lack of representation presents compounding hurdles for English language learners (ELL), whose challenges can extend beyond language barriers to encompass socio-cultural nuances.

Jerold White: “One of the things I learned as an immigrant is that we don’t typically look adults in the eyes. We show respect by looking down. In America, you’re expected to look adults in the eyes when talking to them. That cultural difference is subtle but huge – It’s hard to educate somebody when not only you don’t understand certain cultural nuances, but you also don’t understand how what you may say could affect them.”


Bridging Gaps to Support Multicultural Students

NHCJE: Students at Manchester West High School speak about 50 different languages. For Mr. White, there is “a feeling of lessening the rigor or the expectations because you think they [ELL students] are not up to it.” Questioning this unconscious bias is one of the things the administration is addressing by dialoguing with teachers. Additionally, the English language department at Manchester West High School is getting students to have conversations in their native language to assess their performance before placing them in classes.  For this, the school relies on bilingual liaisons that speak the languages of Manchester West’s student population, as the few multilingual teachers can only cover Spanish. 

Jerold White: “English is just a means of communication, not an indicator of how smart you are. And the challenge is getting students to actively participate in sharing their knowledge, without having to do it in English, which is something they might be comfortable with. As their English skills increase they often feel more comfortable sharing their knowledge in class using their second language – English.”

NHCJE: These liaisons are also crucial to help the school connect with parents and guardians. A NHCJE brief about the languages spoken in New Hampshire reports that nearly 53% of the state’s non-English speakers live in Hillsborough County. Without language access initiatives and language representation, multilingual and non-English speaking students might not be in a position where they can perform as well as their peers. 

Jerold White: “In many of our non-English-speaking families kids have an extra burden at home because they’re their parents’ translators. They sometimes miss school to attend doctor’s appointments, social security meetings, or wherever speaking English is involved, which is not supposed to happen. For example, in a recent interaction, our Arabic-speaking liaison helped parents understand why they were getting an absentee letter.”


Fostering Inclusivity: Manchester West’s Initiatives for Representation

NHCJE: In addressing representation disparities, Mr. White calls for the creation of inclusive environments within educational institutions. To achieve this at Manchester West High School, the administrative team started a pilot program for social-emotional learning with restorative practices.

Jerold White: “We aim to acknowledge the weight that students carry as they enter the school building. Whether it’s the aftermath of a physical altercation or simply the complexities of daily life, we want to create space for students to process their emotions. It’s not just about brushing things aside; this applies to all students, not just those of color. Our administration is committed to validating these experiences.”

NHCJR: Additionally, other initiatives actively promote the diverse cultures present within the school community. From sharing information about culturally significant holidays to displaying flags from various countries in the cafeteria, the administration strives to create a welcoming atmosphere where all forms of diversity are recognized and celebrated by both students and teachers alike.

The students are also very proactive in advancing representation in their school at a grassroots level. Initiatives such as creating the first Black Student Union and organizing cultural events like hip-hop nights and fashion shows serve as invaluable platforms for students to celebrate their identities. For Mr. White, “the kids are really good at presenting things they want to do. And our role as educators  is just to facilitate that.”


Systemic Change is Needed to Advance Representation at the State Level

NHCJE: While commendable progress is being made at the local level, Mr. White underscores the need for systemic change at the state level. This entails concerted efforts to diversify the teaching workforce, integrate culturally relevant curricula, and foster an environment that recognizes and celebrates diversity. For him, having somebody in the room to make decisions about the diverse needs of the students is essential.

Jerold White: “We need to actively target diversity in our hiring practices, and make sure we’re giving qualified people the opportunity to jump into these spaces. Promoting from within is understandable, but it hasn’t led to the desired outcomes. It’s frustrating when qualified candidates are encouraged to pursue roles they didn’t apply for. For example, if someone aspires to be a principal or assistant principal, don’t suggest they become a teacher instead.”

NHCJE: Achieving meaningful representation in schools is not about percentual parity and meeting quotas, but rather about fostering an environment where diversity is celebrated, different voices are uplifted, and perspectives are valued. By prioritizing representation and inclusivity, schools can evolve into spaces where all students feel seen, heard, and supported. Ultimately, the journey toward true representation in schools is ongoing, requiring continuous commitment, dialogue, and action from all stakeholders involved.


Jerold White brief biography

Jerold White immigrated to the United States as a teenager in 1989 from Monrovia, Liberia.  He graduated from the University of Massachusetts Lowell with a degree in psychology in 1999.  Jerold worked as a crisis team member with juveniles prior to working as an educator.  In 2008, Jerold earned his master’s degree in special education from Cambridge College. For over 20 years Jerold worked as a school leader in substantially separate educational settings.  These environments aim to support students with social, emotional, and learning disabilities while offering special education services outside of the student’s home school. His career focus has been to address school discipline and establish positive behavior expectations for the students in these environments while pushing social-emotional learning and vocational internship programs that assist students in gaining transferable workforce skills.  Jerold is currently the Assistant Principal at Manchester West High School, where he continues to provide social-emotional support for students with a focus on connection and representation.