Qorsho Hassan got the news over Zoom that she was losing her job.

The layoff came in April, a few weeks after schools abruptly transitioned to distance learning. Qorsho was an award-winning elementary educator and already a finalist for Minnesota Teacher of the Year. She was one of the only Black teachers in a school where half the students are Black. And it was the second time the Burnsville–Eagan–Savage district had cut her job.

After a temporary layoff in 2019, the district had quickly hired her back. But with steep budget cuts in 2020, Qorsho knew it was unlikely she would be hired back as a classroom teacher. She accepted a fourth-grade teaching position in the neighboring Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan district instead.

Now, Qorsho is preparing her new fourth-grade classroom for a year of hybrid learning. She’s counting the days until she can meet her students. But she’s still disappointed by her experience in Burnsville. 

“I still feel like we have a system that is designed not to retain teachers of color,” she said.

In the three years Qorsho taught at Gideon Pond Elementary School, principal Chris Bellmont hailed her as a “game-changing educator.” Fellow teacher Laurel Mirs said Qorsho’s ability to connect with students was “unlike anything I’ve ever seen.” Parents described her as a role model for their children and praised her attention to social-emotional learning. She received a national honor from the Kinect Education Group for her racial equity work in schools.

But because she’d only been at Gideon Pond for three years, she was vulnerable to seniority-based layoffs. A few months after she lost her job in Burnsville, Qorsho became the first Somali American educator to win Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

How did this happen? Until a law change in 2017, Minnesota’s teacher layoff policy required the most recently hired teachers to be first to lose their jobs (unless districts had specifically negotiated an exception). The practice is no longer law, but it still guides employment policy in many districts. 

Critics argue that the last-in/first-out policy, known as LIFO, lays off teachers of color disproportionately. While only 5 percent of Minnesota’s overall teachers are people of color, newer teachers come from more diverse backgrounds.

Repealing the last-in/first-out law shifted decision-making to individual districts. But without a clear policy to replace it, some districts—like Burnsville—are struggling to implement practices that can retain teachers of color during layoffs.

Everyone involved in the layoffs in Burnsville, from the school board chair to the superintendent to the union president, said that recruiting and retaining teachers of color is a priority for the district. But no one claimed responsibility for the failure to retain Qorsho and her peers.

Burnsville’s superintendent, Theresa Battle, sent these tweets after Qorsho won the Minnesota Teacher of the Year award.

Qorsho hopes that sharing her experience can lead to better district policies, she said. Lots of schools are releasing statements about equity lately, she noted, particularly after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. However, she said, some districts’ actions—and inaction—don’t match their words.

“If you are saying you are trying to be a more equitable school district and serving students and communities of color the right way, you need to make sure you are putting effective and culturally relevant teachers in front of them,” she said. “Because we’re damn good.”

‘You don’t want to stay in a system that doesn’t want you.’

Minnesota’s gaping educational disparities between white students and students of color are no secret. For example, a recent Federal Reserve study showed that Minnesota’s racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, measured by test scores, graduation rates, and college readiness, rank among the worst in the nation.

Part of the problem, explains Josh Crosson, executive director of EdAllies, a Minnesota education equity nonprofit, is Minnesota’s teacher-of-color shortage. When Black students have even one Black elementary teacher, studies show, their academic performance increases. They are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to apply for college. 

And the advantages of teacher diversity aren’t limited to Black students or other students of color. Studies show a diverse teacher workforce benefits white students, too.

While children of color now make up more than a third of Minnesota’s public school students, only 5 percent of their teachers are people of color. In Burnsville, this disparity is even more pronounced. While teacher diversity numbers mirror the state average, nearly two thirds of students are Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American.

The numbers of teachers of color are starting to grow. In 2019, 15 percent of students enrolled in Minnesota teacher preparation programs were people of color. Put another way, a new teacher is three times more likely than the average Minnesota teacher to be a person of color.

A policy that requires districts to lay off newer teachers first undermines efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color, Crosson said.

“All of these efforts and initiatives to increase teacher diversity are being thrown out the window,” he said—a costly mistake. 

“I still feel like we have a system that is designed not to retain teachers of color.”

Qorsho hassan, Minnesota’s 2020 Teacher of the year

While Qorsho was able to get a teaching job at a neighboring school, some of her teaching peers have left the field, she said. Teaching is difficult, and being one of the only teachers of color in a predominantly white field adds extra stress. 

“Being laid off right away is such a demoralizing experience,” she said. “But to go through it several times can really be super defeating. You don’t want to stay in a system that doesn’t want you.” 

While LIFO is no longer the law, most districts still use it, Crosson said. And some districts that are turning away from LIFO now prioritize teachers with alternative licenses for layoffs—a group also more likely to include educators of color.  “So what we really need schools to do is start thinking about antiracist policies included in their layoff policies, and not simply just get rid of this one type of policy,” he said.

Instead of a seniority-based layoff system, he’d like to see a system that privileges teachers in shortage areas. For example, in some parts of the state, there may be a shortage of science and engineering teachers. Teachers of color represent one of those shortage areas and should be protected, he said. He’d also like to see a system that protects teachers who have the most impact on students’ growth.

Qorsho, too, says the LIFO policy needs to change. “I think the mastery of teaching has more to do with your impact on students, on their families, on their livelihood and not necessarily years of experience,” she said. “And I think experience comes with a lot of privilege and whiteness and opportunities for different resources that educators of color don’t always have.”

Qorsho Hassan sits at her desk in her new classroom at Echo Park Elementary School, holding a sharpened number-two pencil. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

What happened in Burnsville?

Seniority was the major sticking point in Burnsville teacher negotiations in 2018, the first year after the state legislature repealed the mandatory LIFO law. Teachers wanted to keep their seniority-based layoff system. The school board wanted more flexibility.

They compromised: Seniority would remain the primary consideration for teacher layoffs. But the school board had the ability to set “staffing retention priorities” annually. A form in the union contract stipulates that the school board can use these priorities to help with recruitment and retention of educators with “diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds” or needed language-proficiency skills.

But this spring, budget problems cut deeper than usual. Facing declining enrollment and funding that failed to keep pace with inflation, the district decided to close three schools and increase class sizes. As a result, 52 probationary teachers and 12 tenured teachers lost their jobs—about 10 percent of all the teachers in the district. Despite the compromise, the cuts largely followed seniority. 

The cuts were so deep that all elementary teachers hired in the last five years got laid off, explained Wendy Drugge Wuensch, president of the Burnsville Education Association, the local teachers union. Qorsho had been on the job for three years.

“The School Board and the administration make the budget based on the priorities where they choose,” Wuensch said in an emailed statement. “The cuts were a budgetary and priority decision.”

“Being laid off right away is such a demoralizing experience. You don’t want to stay in a system that doesn’t want you.”

qorsho hassan, MInnesota Teacher of the year

But in an interview, Abigail Alt, the chair of the Burnsville school board, said that district leadership had determined the board could face litigation if it chose to prioritize protecting teachers of color from layoffs. Instead, the board used the staffing retention priorities to protect teachers in specialized subject areas, like culinary classes.

“State and federal law prohibits us from focusing on a protected class in the employment process,” she said. “So while folks might like to think that the board priorities could be used to,  say, protect a particular class of people—whether based on race or ability—that’s against the law and we simply can’t do that.”

Over the past few years, Alt said, Burnsville schools had made great strides in hiring new teachers of color. According to state data, between the 2014 and 2019 school years, the number of teachers of color in Burnsville increased by 25 percent—even as the district employed fewer teachers overall.

“Unfortunately, the cohort that had the greatest diversity was the cohort that was released as a result of LIFO,” she said.

Qorsho felt like neither the district nor the union supported her. Everyone kept saying their hands were tied. 

“I was really frustrated that the board and the executive team, including the superintendent, were really upset about not being able to retain me,” she said. “But they didn’t do anything to think about how to retain not just me, but other teachers of color.”

A reckoning

Since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd at the end of May, Denise Specht has been hearing from teachers all over the state about the urgency they feel to address racism in their schools. Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest educators union, describes it as a “reckoning.”

“We need to have a serious discussion about what does an anti-racist school district look like in Minnesota,” Specht said. “And I believe that district policies, district practices, and union contracts should be part of the conversation.”

One facet of that conversation, Specht said, will be encouraging union locals to apply an equity lens to contract language—including the layoff policy—when negotiations start next year. 

But the conversation about recruiting and retaining teachers of color needs to extend beyond layoffs, she said.

“Even one layoff is too many, don’t get me wrong. But we are losing too many educators of color for things like lack of mentoring programs, for staff discipline disparities, for education debt,” she said. “There are just so many things that need to be upended and improved in the public education system that are affecting our educators of color on a daily basis.” 

Some of these issues will require legislative action and funding, she added.

“If a teacher of color is protected, a white educator could be laid off. Are you willing to make that sacrifice to provide an equitable education for students of color?”

josh crosson, executive director of Ed allies

Josh Crosson of EdAllies is hopeful that the current movement against racism will create space to address some of these inequities. The tipping point of an anti-racism movement, he says, is whether white people are willing to give up power on behalf of people of color. LIFO is a clear example of that test.

“Are you willing to sacrifice your power, your job even, to make sure that people of color and students of color are served well with teacher-retention policies?” he asked. “Because if a teacher of color is protected, that would mean that a white educator could be laid off. Are you willing to make that sacrifice in order to provide an equitable education system for students of color and workers of color?”

Preparing a new classroom, missing the students left behind

At Echo Park Elementary, Qorsho is setting up her new classroom in preparation for a hybrid learning model this fall. She estimates five teachers of color who left Burnsville in the spring now work in Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan schools.

This summer she’s heard from families at her previous school, Gideon Pond Elementary, about how much they will miss her. It’s been heartbreaking, she said, when Somali parents tell her they wish she could continue to teach their children, and provide a visible role model in the school.

Since it’s Qorsho’s first year in a new district, she’s a probationary teacher for the third time in her young career. She’d been worried she might get reassigned to the school’s digital academy, when her priority has always been teaching in a classroom. But she was able to keep her fourth-grade classroom. Now she’s decorating the space, arranging the calendar, and putting up posters for the beginning of a new school year. 

This time, she hopes, she won’t have to take her classroom decorations down again in June.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...