Teacher race: our schools’ unbalanced equation

By Mike Hixenbaugh
The Virginian-Pilot
Sept. 17, 2011

Children do better in school when their instructor is the same race, some studies suggest. Yet, teacher demographics in South Hampton Roads don’t come close to mirroring student populations.

The racial imbalance is most pronounced in Virginia Beach, where 85 percent of public school teachers are white and close to half of students are not, statistics show.

Division officials and School Board members have long been aware of the disparity and have worked to recruit a more diverse teaching staff.

But school leaders say they are hamstrung by a national shortage of young black and Hispanic educators. The national demand for nonwhite educators has swelled as a growing body of evidence suggests broad teacher diversity helps student achievement, particularly among black youths.

Further, school leaders say they are up against a long-standing perception that the Beach school division, a suburban district of more than 70,000 students, is unwelcoming to minority teachers.

The demographic imbalance isn’t unique to Virginia Beach, but the disparity is sharper there than in surrounding school divisions. Statewide, 43 percent of students and 17 percent of teachers are minorities.

A Pilot analysis of federal employment data and student enrollment statistics shows the Beach employs one white classroom teacher for every nine white students but only one minority teacher for every 43 minority students.

The district has only one black male principal. Of more than 2,100 grade school teachers, just 16 are black men. Fewer than one in five top administrators are nonwhite.

Officials from each local school division said they place an emphasis on diversity. That “provides students with role models and prepares them for a world they will experience as adults,” said Lynne Meeks, the interim director of human resources for Norfolk public schools, where nearly half of all teachers are members of minority groups.

Beach school officials said they too have made diversity a priority, but black teachers have been harder to come by in a city that still carries the scars of decades-old racial divisions.

Virginia Beach is still seen by some as a city that sprang from urban white flight in the 1960s. At job fairs across the state, school leaders said, black teaching applicants sometimes express reservations about working for the system.

“I’ve heard that perception several times – that Virginia Beach is somehow unfriendly to black candidates,” said Esther Monclova-Johnson, the associate superintendent for equity affairs, a position created three years ago by Superintendent Jim Merrill to promote cultural and racial sensitivity. “I’ve been trying to dispel that myth, to tell applicants they shouldn’t rely on that dated perception.”

Neighboring Chesapeake also lags behind surrounding districts in teacher diversity. About half of students there are minorities, but four out of five teachers are white.

Larry Ames was troubled he didn’t see more teachers who looked like him when his children attended Virginia Beach schools. That’s one of the reasons he took a teaching job at Newtown Road Elementary after he retired from the Air Force in the late 1990s.

Ames, a black man who later became a principal and then a district administrator, said his race helped him to reach marginalized students that other teachers couldn’t. Now he helps the division recruit minority candidates.

“Diversity has been a problem here,” Ames said. “But I’m not really sure how you go about fixing it other than recruiting and letting people know this is a decent place to work.”

Bernard Platt has taken that message as far as the Philippines in search of teachers. The Beach has a relatively large number of Filipino students. Platt, the division’s director of teacher recruitment, attends job fairs at culturally diverse universities from here to Texas and has forged relationships with the area’s historically black colleges. Also sought: men, who represent just one in five Beach teachers.

“The idea is, if you increase the diversity of your pool of applicants, naturally you’re going to increase the diversity of the people you hire,” Platt said. A quarter of the Beach’s teacher applicants were minorities in 2009, up about 5 percentage points from five years earlier, according to school system statistics.

But the effort hasn’t delivered significant changes in the division’s racial makeup.

Low employee turnover contributes to stagnant teacher demographics, said John Mirra, associate superintendent for human resources. Further, some minority candidates whose hiring was on hold because of budgeting delays accepted jobs elsewhere, he said.

Black teachers, in particular, are increasingly difficult to come by, Mirra said. Nationally, fewer than 8 percent of teachers are black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from decades past.

Educators offer a combination of explanations for the decline. Fewer than half of blacks who enter college graduate; many who do are recruited aggressively into higher paying fields, such as business, engineering and science.

Of the more than 3,100 Virginia college graduates who received a degree in education in 2008, fewer than 225 were black, according to the State Department of Education.

“The reality is, the pool of black teachers is not that large, and we’re in competition with every major city in the country,” Monclova-Johnson said.

The School Board has made it a priority to diversify the teaching force, said Todd Davidson, one of two black board members. That’s part of the division’s goal to close the achievement gap between black male students and their peers.

Growing evidence indicates teacher diversity affects student achievement, said Thomas Dee, a public policy professor with the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia.

In a 2004 study, Dee found that white and black students in Tennessee schools did better on state tests when they had teachers of their own race. A similar 2002 study found that Hispanic students benefited from having Hispanic teachers.

The findings demonstrate the importance of training teachers to be culturally sensitive, Dee said, so that all teachers can better educate students of all races.

“We need teachers who are flat-out good and who we can train to be good for all students,” he said.

That’s what Virginia Beach has strived toward, Monclova-Johnson said. Her office has led a series of forums titled “Candid Conversations about Race” that encourage staff to examine how racial and cultural differences affect their interactions with students.

Susan Edelson, a teacher’s assistant at College Park Elementary, said the discussions have helped bridge communication gaps. “Through conversation, we learn that you can’t just treat all the students the same,” Edelson said.

Parents and students are sometimes surprised when they see John Harris teaching second grade at Pembroke Meadows Elementary.

Harris was one of the 16 black men teaching at Beach elementary schools last year. He said he knows he is a role model for black boys – many of whom lack positive male influences at home – but they aren’t the only ones who benefit.

“It’s good for all students to have a diverse set of teachers – to see different types of people in classrooms,” Harris said. “It’s part of offering a well-rounded education.”

Green Run High School Principal George Parker, the lone black male principal in Virginia Beach, thinks system officials have “gone above and beyond” in their efforts to recruit minorities.

Still, Parker said he would like to see the division attract and hire a more diverse teacher workforce. “It’s important for students to see professionals who look like them,” he said. Parker said if he had two teaching candidates of equal caliber, he would consider race before making the job offer.

Ultimately, though, race isn’t as important as character, Parker said. “You could be purple, but as long as students understand you care about them and you want them to do well, you are going to be an exemplary teacher.”

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