Keri Prigmore is a pioneer. As the only black administrator within the three local school systems, she said she is grateful for her opportunities but would love to see more minority teachers and educators hired in Blount County.
So, too, would the local NAACP.
All three directors of schools agree the numbers could be better. They show a mostly all-white staff of certified personnel in Alcoa City Schools, Blount County Schools and also Maryville City Schools.
At Maryville, there are a total of 380 teachers — 374 white (98.4 percent); two are Asian and four are black. All 22 Maryville administrators are white.
The numbers for Alcoa show 166 teachers/administrators in the system — 149 listed white as their race (89.8 percent). Eight are black, one is Asian and one is Native American. Seven individuals didn’t respond on the race question. Three of the teachers listed Hispanic ethnicity.
In Blount County, there are a total of 836 certified employees — 821 white (98.2 percent); six Hispanic or Latino; five are black; three are Asian; and one is an Native American/Alaska native. There are no minority administrators.
These numbers are current for the 2018-19 academic year.
The state Department of Education has provided racial breakdowns of student populations for the 2016-17 academic year.
In Alcoa City Schools, the student ethnicity was 63.9 percent white, 21.7 percent black, 11.5 percent Hispanic or Latino, 1.9 percent Asian and 0.6 percent Native American/Alaskan.
Blount County’s student ethnicity revealed 90.6 percent white, 4.8 percent Hispanic or Latino, 3.3 percent black, 0.79 percent Asian and 0.5 percent Native American/Alaskan.
In Maryville City Schools, the breakdown is 86.5 percent white, 5.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, 2.9 percent black, 2.9 percent Asian and 0.2 percent Native American/Alaskan.
by the numbers
The Tennessee Department of Education released a report Aug. 15 to provide insight on the racial and ethnic makeup of Tennessee’s student body and educator workforce. The department is recommending that school boards and local school districts establish goals for recruitment, employment and retention of teachers of color.
According to the report, in 2017-18, 37 percent of Tennessee students were students of color, but teachers of color represented only 13 percent of the teacher population. This gap does mirror a trend across the United States, where students of color make up 51 percent of the student body but teachers of color are only 18 percent.
In 2017-18, the Tennessee report said 147 districts had at least 95 percent white teachers. Forty percent had no African-American teachers, and 50 had no Hispanic teachers.
Prigmore is the coordinator for the alternative school PAL (Pershing Academy of Learning) for Alcoa High School. She is a graduate of Maryville High School and worked her way through the ranks of Maryville City Schools. She earned her undergraduate degree in communications, her master’s in education and her doctorate in administration.
Her mother, Marjorie Stewart, taught for 30 years in the area. She said there were no teachers of color during her lengthy tenure, except for one semester. She taught at Sam Houston Elementary for 29 years and spent one year in Knoxville.
Teacher diversity is one of the issues taken on by the Alcoa-Blount County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as it gained its charter recently. Two of its leaders, the Rev. Willa Estell and Justin Wilson, both attended the national NAACP convention in San Antonio last month.
When members of the Alcoa-Blount County chapter of the NAACP came home from the national convention, they came away re-energized because they said people listened.
Those people were national members of the organization, which seeks justice and equality for all. A resolution written by Blount County resident and first vice president of the local NAACP, Charles Carpenter, had been approved to bring more teacher diversity to local public schools.
The resolution states both minority and white students benefit from having minority teachers at the head of the classroom.
“It is to the benefit of all students to have African-American teachers,” said Estell, president of the local NAACP chapter. “And as administrators, African-American students need to know they can do this, that the sky’s the limit.
“And it also does something for white students,” Estell said. “For white students to understand that black teachers are intelligent. That black teachers have something to impart. That black people as a whole are part of the integrated structure of our society. One of the things that brings about white privilege is if you never see anybody but you in those positions. You grow up with that sense of privilege.”
Getting ‘no’ for an answer
One black educator, Sharifa Love, lives in Blount County but drives 45 minutes to Anderson County each day because she couldn’t get a teaching job in Blount County. She is a graduate of Alcoa High, and her husband graduated from Maryville High. Her dad, Ron Coffin, was one of the students who integrated MHS.
“He sent us to Alcoa because it was more diverse,” Love said of her own schooling.
She holds two master’s degrees, one in school counseling. So when a counselor job opened in Maryville, Love applied. She doesn’t know how many other candidates there were; she only knows she never got an interview for a job for which she said she is definitely qualified.
Mike Winstead, director of Maryville City Schools, didn’t comment specifically on Love’s situation. He said vacancies are filled using a site-based system. The school with the opening forms a committee that looks through the applications and conducts online interviews and then in-person interviews before making a recommendation to the principal.
He said MCS students are 4 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic and close to that number for Asians.
Less candidates to pull from
“We need to make sure we are considering all ethnic groups and also economical backgrounds and geographical diversity,” Winstead said. “We need to have more male teachers. Our main concern moving forward is to address those diversity goals in an ever-shrinking pool of teacher candidates overall.
“We know that nationwide, we are seeing 30 percent less people going into teaching,” he said. “So you have reduced the overall pool by 30 percent. It’s going to be hard in the future to find an adequate workforce, and you lay on top of that this goal to have a more diverse workforce, and I don’t have a solution to that.”
Winstead did say one solution is to “grow your own.” That would mean identifying students in high school who are interested in going into teaching and providing them with help getting on that pathway. They then could come back to Maryville and teach, he said.
“We love the number of teachers we have that are graduates of Maryville High School,” Winstead said. “It is just a matter of growing your own and putting them on that pathway.”
He and his leadership team will address the issue of ethnic, gender and geographical diversity moving forward, he said. “That diversity is certainly beneficial to the students,” he added.
Brian Bell, director of Alcoa City Schools, said his system’s numbers for teacher diversity have remained about the same over the past eight years. He admits the numbers don’t mirror the student population.
“We are well below for African-American and also Hispanic populations,” he said. “As far as our fastest-growing demographic, it would have to be Hispanic.”
He said the challenge every year is to increase the number of minority teachers against the backdrop of a lack of applications. Alcoa is trying in multiple ways to change that, Bell said.
One is by reaching out to historically black colleges. Bell said he has written letters to some in this region for the past five years. To his knowledge, there has been no interest shown.
Another challenge is that almost every minority teacher Alcoa hires comes from Blount County and surrounding communities, which makes Alcoa look better but then takes away from these other schools looking to increase their minority hires. Bell said he hasn’t hired a minority teacher from anywhere other than East Tennessee.
The last Hispanic teacher Bell hired was from Blount County Schools. The last black teacher came here from Knox County and another, from Blount.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to who is the best fit for Alcoa City Schools, Bell said, adding the district looks to hire highly respected educators with years of experience.
Work to be done
Stewart, Prigmore’s mother, applied with Maryville City Schools for five principal jobs over the years. She was interviewed for three of them but was never selected. At the end of her career, one of her former students, a white male, became a principal.
The longtime educator said she is afraid minority teachers aren’t getting fair consideration for positions for which they are qualified. She said one of her colleagues in Maryville City Schools told her when she was seeking to advance to apply with Blount County because she would have a better chance there.
The local NAACP chapter decades ago did challenge the hiring practices of the local school systems, Stewart said. She didn’t recall the outcome of that challenge.
Stewart said she was even part of a hiring panel years ago that she had to warn because it opposed hiring a male candidate to serve at an elementary school — opposition she called discrimination.
“It’s not just Maryville,” Stewart said. “It is countywide. It’s just the way it is. Not the way it should be.”
Prigmore, who has her doctorate, has applied for positions at Maryville and said she was overlooked.
“Keri has been applying for years,” Stewart said. “She was applying before I left.”
That was 12 years ago. Prigmore was hired by Blount County as a teacher at Heritage Middle School early in her career before being recruited by then-Principal Jim Kirk at Alcoa Middle School. Prigmore said Kirk was one of those who actively sought a diversified group of teachers.
Jill Carpenter serves on the executive committee for the Alcoa-Blount County NAACP. She is white, and her husband, Charles, is black. He is the one who wrote the resolution that gained approval at the national NAACP convention. They have a daughter in a local public school.
“It is important for your child to have a teacher that looks like them,” she said. Her daughter, 11, had one black teacher.
David Murrell is assistant director of operations for Blount County Schools. He echoed what both Winstead and Bell said regarding a shrinking pool of candidates. The school system has gone outside this immediate region to recruit in places like Middle Tennessee and out of state, Murrell said.
“It is certainly our desire to increase the numbers of minority educators in our workforce,” he said. “One of the things we have done is expand our recruiting efforts in this region and throughout the state. A lot of the recruiting events we go to draw from other states as well. That is one of the things we have started doing and we want to continue to work on.”
Like Maryville City Schools and Alcoa City Schools, Murrell said Blount County Schools prefers candidates who have experience versus those just coming out of college.
“Our principals really look for the highest quality and experience,” Murrell said. “Ten years of experience versus someone just out of college — they have more tools in their arsenal, which helps the schools.”
But Prigmore, Love, Stewart and other minority educators who were bypassed for jobs wonder why they, as qualified candidates, were not interviewed.
“When you hear people say ‘we have no qualified candidates’ and you know yours was one of them, that’s a blow,” Prigmore said. “Not a blow to my self-esteem. My self-esteem is concrete. ... I have interviewed for every single administrative job that Maryville City Schools had. I got an interview for one.”
Estell said she hopes there will be more conversations between the NAACP and the local school systems on the issue of diversity. She said she only has to look at her own life to see what can be.
“One of the greatest influences of my life besides my parents was my fourth-grade teacher,” she said. “She was an African-American. It was just the way she carried herself. To be able to see an African-American woman and she is encouraging me to be the best I can be: That stuck with me my entire life, even in high school. She had that much influence on my life, because I saw somebody with the same skin complexion as me. She is one of the top five people with the greatest influence on my life.”