MADRAS, Ore. (AP) _ The student population in Jefferson County is one-third American Indian, one-third Hispanic and one-third white. But that diversity is nearly absent from the Jefferson County School District staff.

Like every other Central Oregon school district, the teacher workforce in Jefferson County is more than 90 percent white, The Bend Bulletin reported ( ).

According to academics, state education leaders and superintendents, that gap matters.

“Quite a bit of research shows student engagement, motivation and success is increased in student populations when they see role models in teaching positions who reflect or understand their background,” said Carolyn Platt, Oregon State University’s program lead for teacher education. “A teacher who brings in a depth of understanding has a great advantage.”

School district officials are working to improve the situation with help from Oregon State University, which is offering scholarships for its Cascades campus master in teaching program for students from underrepresented populations.

“Really, the applicants just aren’t there,” said Jefferson County Superintendent Rick Molitor. “We want our staff and teachers to be in line with the demographics of our students, and it’s something we’re striving for, but we don’t have the applicants.”

Platt said OSU-Cascades offered scholarships not only to those from underrepresented ethnicities or races, but also to applicants from low-income backgrounds, who were first-generation college students or who had extensive experience working with the populations missing from the teacher workforce.

Deona Drazil, 35, one of the scholarship recipients, grew up on a farm in Malin and is the first in her family to complete college, let alone attend graduate school. Drazil works with a tribal population through the Klamath Tribal Health and Family Services, and she believes these experiences position her to better connect with students.

“It gives me a different perspective,” said Drazil, who wants to teach kindergarten or first grade. “I’ve seen a lot of things and a lot of kids who have gone through so much. I can have a lot of empathy for them. It helps me to relate and look for signs and tweak the material to make sure no kids get left behind, as they say.”

Echo DeMasters, 30, another scholarship recipient, cited her childhood growing up in a poor Madras family as something that will allow her to understand students facing the same challenges she encountered.

“I remember what it was like and the stigma that went with it,” she said. “It allows me to be more compassionate with them, and I think I can do better with their parents, too. I’m not sure if it’s a sense I developed or natural, but I interact well with them.”

School districts, including Jefferson County, as well as teacher education programs, teach current and prospective educators how to work with a diverse set of students. However, Markisha Smith, an education specialist with the Equity Unit of the Oregon Department of Education, emphasized that this training can’t stand in for a diverse staff.

“Teachers of color serve as role models for all students; no matter what background they have, they see this person breaking historical stereotypes,” Smith said. “There’s also research that shows teachers of color are in a unique position to teach students of color.”