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Aurora Institute

Nicole Assisi’s Seven Tips for Diversifying Your Organization

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

Thrive Public School for Voice of San Diego
Nicole Assisi

On Friday, August 19th I had the opportunity to talk with Nicole Assisi of Thrive Public Schools (recognized for project-based, blended learning, social-emotional learning) regarding how they have been able to diversify their staffing to represent the students and families they serve. Their site leadership is now 71 percent people of color, staff is 28 percent Latino, 8 percent African-American, and 8 percent Asian-Pacific Islanders, and the CMO staff is 50 percent people of color.

On that very same day, Education Secretary John King called out for greater educator diversity: While students of color make up the majority in our public schools, just 18 percent of teachers identify as people of color. …We must do more to support teachers of color at all points across the teacher pipeline so students today can benefit from and become the teachers and mentors of tomorrow.

Why Diversity Matters

His statement was in regards to the release of a Brookings Institute report High hopes and harsh realities: The real challenges to building a diverse workforce. The authors do report some good news: The number of minority teachers in the nation has doubled over the past few decades from about 325,000 in the late 1980s to 660,000 in 2012. But the bad news: The improvements aren’t keeping pace with the proportion of “minority” students in our classrooms (which now add up to be a majority). I think the summary of the research on why diversity matters is important to review. The authors highlight three sets of research:

1) Same-race matches between students and teachers are associated with greater student achievement. Studies of elementary students in Florida (Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015), North Carolina (Goldhaber & Hansen, 2010), and Tennessee (Dee, 2004) find improvements in math and reading achievement from being taught by a same-race teacher. Effects are estimated to be stronger among low-performing black students (Egalite, Kisida, & Winters, 2015).

2) Same-race teachers are more likely to view students’ behaviors and prospects in a positive light. Black teachers have higher expectations for black students’ academic futures (e.g., perceived likelihood of graduating high school) than do white teachers (Fox, 2016); (Gershenson, Holt, & Papageorge, 2016). Dee (2005) and McGrady & Reynolds (2012) find that students who have a teacher from a different race/ethnicity have higher odds of being rated inattentive than students with same-race teachers, and white teachers rate black students as having lower scholastic aptitude. A nationally representative study found that black children are more likely to be rated worse in assessments of their externalized behaviors when they have a white teacher than when they have a black teacher (Bates & Glick, 2013). Relatedly, black students in classrooms with black teachers are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted services than those in classrooms with non-black teachers (Grissom & Redding, 2016).

3) Student behaviors and attitudes are also associated with teacher race. Students assigned to a same-race teacher have significantly fewer absences and suspensions, and are less likely to be chronically absent than their counterparts who had an other-race teacher (Holt & Gershenson, 2015). Students who share racial/ethnic characteristics with their teachers tend to have a more favorable perception of their teachers (Egalite & Kisida, 2016).

The paper goes on to describe the “leaks” in the pipeline – and as overwhelming as it can feel to see it all outlined in one place, each of us has a role in expanding and tightening the pipeline. In the world of competency education, our job is to both diversify the state education agencies, national organizations and intermediaries as well as the districts and schools serving students.

Learning from Assisi and Thrive on How to Increase Organizational Diversity

So how did Assisi and Thrive do it? There is a lot to be learned from Assisi and Thrive Public Schools. (FYI – although Thrive isn’t competency-based, we are trying to learn from everyone we can to correct the weakness in our field.) The following is a combination of Assisi’s insights from the interview and her notes. Although some areas are quoted, consider this all to be in her words:

#1 Why Does Diversity Matter to You? It is important to get beyond seeing staff diversity as something that you count or that looks pretty in pictures. Assisi emphasized, “Diversity is critical to your core mission in understanding communities and educating diverse students.” Once you are able to get beyond what you want your class picture to look like, hopefully you will see that the reason diversity matters is because it helps us understand our kids. It moves us out of an ethnocentric paradigm into one of seeking to understand each other. It helps us become culturally responsive.

#2 Seek Input and Listen. It doesn’t cost to listen, but it takes some effort to get the input you are going to need to create a multi-racial organization. Try surveys or create an advisory to ask courageous questions such as: How can we make our organization or school more inviting to you? What are we not seeing or paying attention to? How can we become more inclusive?

#3 Set SMART Goals: Goals matter. It is impossible to be intentional without them. Assisi decided that she wanted be succeeded by a leader of color and “that was that.” If there were not enough executive level staff of color that might eventually take on her job, then Thrive would need to bring folks in at various levels of opportunity and train and support folks to have the skills they need. Goal setting makes a difference in making diversity a priority and making sure that resources are directed towards it.

#4 Intentional Outreach through Asset Mapping: It is critical that we see outreach not as a “wherever the chips may fall” game but rather a strategic process to reach networks and institutions with people from a variety of backgrounds. One way to do that is to go through an asset mapping process that identifies who within your community or state can help you who you may not already have connections with. That’s the rub – you have to map out the organizations you don’t know well or may not even know about. You may have to do some research. Have you reached out to black fraternities, Latino leadership councils, the Pacific Islander community center, or the Imam at the local mosque? Assisi warns us, “If you always do what you always did, you will get what you always got.” It’s okay to ask for help. Make requests to your community to help you build relationships with new friends and collaborators.

#5 Be an Advocate, Not Just an Ally: Bringing about change requires us to be more than cheerleaders who watch the marathoners run past us. One of our jobs is to actively create a safe space for colleagues of color. Assisi explained, “White voices matter when creating a multi-racial organization. This means I need to be prepared to take on the ripples and blows from white peers who do not understand the importance of this work.” Engage with other white leaders, staff members, and parents to have conversations about race. Authorize the use of a race lens in staff meetings by bringing it up so everyone knows it is discussable. Create space for students to share their voice, experience, and insights.

#6 Hold High Standards for Ourselves: Holding high standards is a double-edge principle. First we must hold high standards for ourselves to create an organization where people of color want to work, will thrive, and move up the organization. We need to do our best in forming new relationships, accessing new networks and reaching out and recruiting staff of color. It also means that we don’t fall into the trap of tokenism either. There are great people are out there – genius is distributed equally, but access is not. We must provide people with access to key relationships, training, and coaching to make sure that the people we hire have the skills and support to succeed.

 #7 Make Peace with Discomfort. Talking about race can make us feel uncomfortable. But we can’t run away from the discomfort, we need to embrace it. As a white woman, some conversations are hard, but my discomfort is small compared to that of some of my peers of color feel in organizations that aren’t willing to use a race lens. I am committed to continuing the dialogue even when I am uncomfortable. I will dig in and do the work. Having the choice on whether I engage or not is a privilege. It often reminds me what white privilege is all about, but I will not back away.

Dr. Nicole Assisi is an accomplished school developer and leader in 21st century learning innovations, who launched Thrive Public Schools, a new breakthrough model for project-based, blended learning K-12 schools. Prior to Thrive, Dr. Assisi was part of the founding teams for both Camino Nuevo and the Da Vinci Schools in Los Angeles. She also worked in the San Diego Unified School District and High Tech High. Twitter: @docAssisi or @ThrivePS.

For additional insights into cultural responsiveness see: