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Having at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces the odds of dropping out by 29% among low-income black students and 39% among very low-income black males. Black students who have only one black third-grade teacher are 13% more likely to enroll in college, while those with two black teachers are 32% more likely.
However, black teachers make up only 7% of the entire workforce, even though black children make up at least 16% of the student population.
For my school district in Middletown City, Ohio, these statistics are motivation to continually challenge ourselves to reinvent strategies to recruit and retain teachers of color.
Although I was blessed with multiple champions throughout my K-12 experience, I didn’t have a single black teacher until Algebra II High School. My first and only color teacher set high standards in hopes that I would rise to achieve them. These high expectations are part of the fabric of who I am today – shaping what I in turn expect of others. It also inspired my career path: I started as a middle school math teacher and now am the superintendent of the Middletown City School District.
Growing up, no one told me there was a need for black men in education. But diversifying the field must begin by verbalizing to black and brown children that they are needed and valued, and that teaching is a meaningful profession where they can truly make a difference.
Several years ago, my district undertook to diversify its workforce, but without defining a positive outcome. When we achieved a 5% increase in overall staff diversity, we congratulated ourselves. But when we analyzed what that really meant, we realized we didn’t know how or if the culture had changed. We had to define our envisioned success.
We began to reinvent our hiring practices by examining successful national models and finding ways to emulate them. Visiting other League of Innovative Schools districts, we saw how the Toronto District School Board and South Carolina’s Richland School District Two have developed successful partnerships with organizations led by former teachers of color. This inspired a partnership with He is Me, a mentorship program targeting first-year black students who are undecided about a major.
Through this program, our district provides opportunities for students to discover an interest in serving youth through education. We connect them with black men who are already teachers and mentor them in the hope that students will discover an interest in serving youth and pursuing careers in education. Ultimately, our goal is to hire 25 black male teachers – well-qualified, urban-minded young men with a passion for education and service to others – by 2027.
But even if we hit that mark, we know effective recruiting only solves half the problem – we also need to develop retention strategies to truly change the culture of the district. To better understand how to effectively retain Color Teachers, we connected with Digital Promise’s Color Teacher Design Studios, to engage our own Color Teachers to create solutions for our particular district. A key takeaway was that teachers of color need to feel empowered to share their thoughts and ideas and maintain ongoing involvement in the decision-making process. We made sure that the educators who would be most affected by this program – our black male teachers – had a seat at the table. Their voices were instrumental in the development and implementation of the teacher retention program.
It was important to our district to create a culture where Black teachers see themselves as teaching specialists, content experts, and sources of inspiration for our children, while supporting each other as family. Knowing that we needed all staff to work towards this common goal, the first step did not call for action – we simply wanted staff to become aware of their own biases, privileges and perspectives. We then slowly swung into action by offering each staff member a series of micro-certificates based on diversity, equity and inclusion. We hope that this type of professional learning will eventually become embedded in the cultural beliefs of our school system and become part of our overall strategic vision.
While we still have a long way to go, we are already seeing positive results from our initial efforts to change our hiring practices to attract more urban-minded educators and diversify our workforce. When we started tracking our results in 2017, we saw a 5% increase in the number of children participating in extracurricular activities over three consecutive years. More recently, a survey of students from ninth to tenth grade revealed that 96% of them said they felt safe when they came to school. Thanks to this, we have found that students feel more comfortable expressing themselves and we are getting better at listening. For example, students expressed interest in a greater variety of different types of opportunities. In response, an elementary school now offers 15 vibrant after-school programs that change quarterly based on student feedback.
By developing a positive connection with adults and fostering a sense of belonging, which leads to the confidence needed to speak up, we believe our children will feel more emotionally secure while in school. When teachers include cultural perspectives in the classroom, students experience greater academic and social-emotional success, eventually graduating with important skills and hopefully eager to return to school.
Ultimately, the key to success is for more school districts nationwide to work together to prioritize recruitment and retention of Black teachers. If we can all continue to inspire each other, we can continue to create and share new successful frameworks and models to attract more Black teachers to our classrooms.
Disclosure: The Walton Family Foundation funds Teacher of Color Design studios from Digital Promise and The 74.