At first glance, one might not know that Sun Prairie is one of the fastest growing school districts in Wisconsin. With two new elementary schools scheduled to open in the fall of 2018 and increasing numbers of children of color attending the school district, Sun Prairie has become the ascending young city that many smaller communities around Dane County aspire to be.
In her post as Head of Human Resources for the Sun Prairie School District, Malika Evanco has 8,400 students and 1,300 employees to think about in a changing community.
In the past, Sun Prairie has been viewed as a quiet, small and white town. But Evanco says Sun Prairie is a community full of diverse backgrounds.
“One of the major challenges is many are unaware of the awesome programming we have for students of color,” Evanco said. “Many think of the Sun Prairie of old that was mostly rural, with little diversity. With the increase in the number of students of color that has occurred in the last eight to ten years, the district has become much more focused on equity programming.”
Evanco said that things like having an equity goal included in all school scorecards, partnering with a national equity organization to identify barriers to equity, instituting a superintendent’s Diversity Council, and empowering families to focus on equity are some of the things the school system in Sun Prairie is doing.
Evanco says that 34 percent of the students in Sun Prairie are students of color. The school system tries to keep classroom sizes small and manageable for teachers which helps students not be left behind, especially the kids of color.
Evanco, who spent seven years as Director of Employment, Diversity and Community Relations at Madison College as well as a year as Head of Human Resources at Agrace, knows that she is a model for other women of color to rise through the ranks and take a power position in a major school district.
“Competition in the recruitment of teachers of color in the surrounding Dane County area districts is often a challenge as well,” Evanco said. “There are close to 20 districts in the Dane County and surrounding area competing to not only recruit, but retain teachers of color. One of our major recruitment efforts funds tuition costs for non-instructional employees of color who are interested in becoming teachers. We also focus our efforts on keeping our teachers of color through mentoring, instructional coaching, teaching leadership and professional development.”
According to a 2016 report, only seven percent of teachers were African-American nationally. One of the most regular complaints parents of color have is about how rare it is for their kids to have people who look like them in teaching and administrative roles around school. The woeful performance ratings of African-American kids versus their white counterparts is one of the issues local schools have been trying to address. The hiring and retention of diverse faculty is an important piece.
For Evanco, heading up human resources is about more than just welcome signs and pink slips. It’s addressing those disparities, removing barriers in front of prospective employees of color, heading up meetings to strategize moving Sun Prairie forward and, overall, basically being everywhere all at once!
“Those who are unfamiliar with human resources think the role is primarily about hiring or firing and don’t understand the complex nature of all that the work entails,” she says. “I have overarching responsibility of some of the most important personnel-related areas in my district: strategy, recruitment, staffing, compensation, benefits, discipline and policies. I don’t take my role for granted.”
Evanco is a member of the Madison alumnae chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., an organization of college-educated women committed to the constructive development of its members and public service with a focus on the black community. She is fully engaged with being an example for other women of color in the community, as well.
“As a woman of color, I am in a position to have positive impact on District and HR related processes and decisions, specifically those impacting or that may adversely impact employees of color,” she says. “And, school system aside, it’s been a challenging, sometimes lonely journey to ascend to a Director level position. However, through prayer, hard work, determination and the support of a few trusted mentors and friends, I am getting better at it. With the full realization that God ain’t done with me yet!”
Neither are the students or faculty of the Sun Prairie school district who need Evanco’s drive and passion.