December 26 — 12:09 pm, 2018

No easy solutions to the problem of fewer black teachers and less diversity on Philly school staffs

Student teacher Kylie Newton in her kindergarten class at Blaine Elementary School in North Philadelphia. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

Kylie Newton grew up in North Philadelphia, attending Duckrey Elementary, Conwell Middle, and Girls’ High. After graduating from Penn State with a communications degree, she tried journalism and merchandising before she realized what she really wanted to do all along: teach.

She is now a student teacher in a kindergarten class at Blaine Elementary, a school in her old neighborhood. She wants to stay there after she gets her certification from Gwynedd Mercy University in Montgomery County.

People like Newton, Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite hopes, will anchor the future of the city’s teaching force – homegrown teachers of color.

Philadelphia has long been a center for distinguished black educators, many of them products of the city’s large black middle class who entered teaching when it was one of the few professions open to African Americans. At one time, nearly 40 percent of the city’s teachers were black.

But for the last two decades, the number of African American teachers in the District has been declining. In 2001, 34 percent of the city’s teachers were black. Today, that number stands at 24 percent.

With this decline comes a second trend. Individual school faculties are becoming less diverse. For several generations, it was unheard of that a Philadelphia public school, regardless of the racial composition of its students, would have no teachers of color, or just one or two. This was the result of a court order imposed as part of a state desegregation case that started in the 1960s and subsequent U.S. Department of Education guidelines requiring that school districts have racially balanced faculties in order to qualify for certain kinds of federal aid.

With the end of the court order in 2010, however, the composition of school faculties has been leaning toward increased segregation. The pattern is clear: Schools with few or no black teachers generally have much higher proportions of white students than the citywide proportion of 14 percent. Conversely, where black teachers are over-represented compared to their citywide numbers, it is, without exception, in schools where nearly all the students are black, or black and Hispanic, and low income.

Notably, teachers of color are also generally much scarcer in special admission schools and, for the most part, white and Asian students are over-represented.

There are no such trends for Asian and Hispanic teachers, whose presence in a school appears to have little or no correlation to student demographics. Their numbers are still very low, although inching up.

Where the racial demographics stand

The Notebook analyzed data obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and the School District. Although PDE releases information on every teacher in the state that includes gender, school, position, and certifications, it does not publish data on race. However, the department provided the racial data when the Notebook requested it under the state’s Right to Know law.

Today, 69 percent of District teachers are white, 24 percent are black, and 6 percent are Latino or Asian. That compares to a student body that is 49 percent black, 20 percent Hispanic, 14 percent white, 8 percent Asian, and 7 percent multiracial.

Superintendent Hite says he is much more concerned about the overall decline of black teachers in the District than he is about the segregating trends in individual schools. In fact, citing recent studies showing that black students benefit from having teachers who look like them, he wonders whether concern about racial balance is misplaced.

He said he wants to increase the number of teachers of color “before we talk about racially balancing schools,” which, he said, may just “run against what the evidence suggests” is best for black students.

“I’m asking the question, now with what we know, is it still wise to get more black teachers in white schools at the expense of black teachers in black schools? Now we know children exposed to even one minority teacher do better,” he said.

Black teachers have a big impact

Studies from Johns Hopkins University have found that having just one black teacher in the early grades significantly increases a black student’s likelihood of graduating high school and going to college. An earlier study by the same researchers found that having just one black teacher in grades 3 to 5 decreases a low-income black student’s chances of dropping out of high school by 29 percent.

“It’s now proven that black children that have black teachers actually graduate at a higher rate than those who don’t,” Hite said. “While we would love to have racially balanced staffs, given the small number of black teacher candidates, we have to ask what would serve a larger purpose. The purpose now is to have teachers of color serve students of color.”

On the other hand, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan, who is, like Hite, an African American, said he is disheartened by the trend toward faculty resegregation in individual schools. He believes that diverse faculties benefit both teachers and students of all backgrounds.

“The way our society is, it is important for children to see people of all races in their schools,” he said. “They get to know people and be familiar with them and, in some cases, their culture.”

Jordan said he rushed back from a conference in Washington, D.C., to appear at the hearing in 2010 when then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman asked Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith, the latest judge to preside over the 40-year-old state desegregation case, to lift the order. Ackerman said it was getting harder to find teachers of the right race in many teaching specialties, resulting in too many vacancies, which are debilitating to schools.

Smith agreed.

“I was very disappointed,” Jordan said. “We could no longer require [desegregation] in the contract, because the court was no longer requiring it.”

The desegregation order, imposed at the behest of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, lit a fire under the District to “work hard to recruit and retain enough minority teachers in order to adhere to the law,” Jordan said.

Source: The Notebook, with data from the School District of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, 2013-2018. Albert Shanker Institute, 2001-2013. Data does not include charter schools.

Hite has made recruiting and retaining minority teachers a priority, but it has been difficult because his tenure here has largely coincided with a plunge in Pennsylvania of people of any race graduating with teaching degrees. That drop is especially pronounced among African Americans.

“There’s a decline in those taking on teacher roles that is experienced across the board, but acutely experienced regarding teachers of color,” said District spokesman Lee Whack.

Even with the steep decline, Philadelphia continues to employ most of the black teachers in Pennsylvania. Only 5.6 percent of the state’s teachers are African American, and about two-thirds of them work in Philadelphia. Nearly three-quarters – 72 percent – work in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, leaving entire swaths of the state with no teachers of color at all. Without Philadelphia, Pennsylvania would rank last among the states in teacher diversity.

Even in suburban districts outside Philadelphia that have high percentages of black students, such as Upper Darby and Cheltenham, black teachers are scarce.

Board of Education member Christopher McGinley, who was once superintendent in Cheltenham, is concerned about the dwindling proportion of black teachers, but he is particularly dismayed by the resegregation trend in Philadelphia schools.

As a young Philadelphia teacher, McGinley, who is white, recalled that in 1978, he was part of a mass transfer of teachers to achieve racial balance in each school, undertaken so the District could quality for a large federal grant.

“I was personally inconvenienced at the time,” said McGinley, who also once served as superintendent in Lower Merion. “But I understood and I agreed with the goal.”

Former federal guidelines

Those federal guidelines required that each school have 75 percent to 125 percent of the total share of appropriately certified black teachers districtwide. Stricter than what the Human Relations Committee had initially imposed on the District in 1968, the federal standards were adopted as part of the desegregation case, subsequently endorsed by the union, and enforced for more than 40 years.

Today, when 24 percent of the District’s teachers are black, meeting those standards would require each school to have 18 to 30 percent black teachers. The Notebook analysis of PDE racial data from the 2016-17 school year, with help from Research for Action, shows that only about 60 of the more than 200 District schools would meet the terms of the order today, as shown in the linked graph below.

Teacher race data Philly district

Two District elementary schools, A.S. Jenks in South Philadelphia and Horatio Hackett in Kensington, had all-white faculties that year, as did the Virtual Academy, the District’s small cyber school. A.S. Jenks’ student population is 41 percent white, and Hackett’s is 60 percent white. About 30 District schools’ teaching forces are more than 82 percent white. Most of them have white student populations of at least 25 percent.

The District school with the highest proportion of white students is Bridesburg Elementary, with 84 percent. In 2016-17, the Bridesburg faculty was listed as 93 percent white, meaning that 3 of the school’s 46 teachers were of color.

On the other hand, almost all the schools where the percentage of black teachers is more than 50 percent – or twice their proportion citywide – are in poor neighborhoods with student enrollments that are almost entirely African American.

“There’s been no encouragement by the administration to say to site-selection committees, ‘You really need to focus on making sure you have a staff that reflects the diversity we have in the School District and in our city,” Jordan said. “It used to be that everyone knew the court order required diversity. Once it was eliminated, no one even talks about it.”

Sharif El-Mekki, a founder of the Black Male Fellowship: Educators for Social Justice, which has the goal of increasing the number of black male teachers in the Philadelphia area, said that he agrees in part with both Hite and Jordan.

“Students of color, they particularly need more black teachers, but as we always say at the Fellowship, white students need diverse teachers as well,” he said.

But any policy has to be carefully thought through. He is concerned, as Jordan is, about black teachers being isolated in some schools. “They can be the subject of microaggressions,” he said.

El-Mekki, now the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker and a longtime District employee before that, doesn’t want to minimize the issue of hiring discrimination, which, he said, is possible in both District and charter schools (see accompanying story).

“There are still educators who believe that black educators belong with black kids, and if the majority of the kids are white, they feel that the only people who should be in front of them are white people,” he said.

Although there is general agreement that black students benefit from having teachers who look like them, the numbers indicate that most of them will primarily encounter white teachers during their school careers. El-Mekki and others said there needs to be more cultural competency training for teachers of all ethnicities than there is now.

Marsha Pincus, who was force-transferred to Gratz High School as a young teacher because of the racial-balance court order, said that she benefited from professional development through such organizations as the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative and PATHS/PRISM, the forerunners of what is now the Philadelphia Education Fund.

“I took advantage of every program I could – learning about African American history, literature, art, and culture. And with each new workshop or seminar I attended, I would bring what I was learning into my classroom,” said Pincus.

As a student in the Philadelphia District in the 1960s and ’70s, she said, she never learned about these things.

“So when a student challenged me, telling me that I was teaching ‘white man’s bullshit,’ not only was I able to question the limitations of my own education, there were people and places to whom I could turn to re-educate myself. I worry – who is doing this today?”

Pincus ultimately wrote a play about her experiences called Chalkdust (see accompanying story).

Site selection in hiring

Until the early 2000s, teacher assignment in Philadelphia was governed almost entirely by seniority and teacher choice. The next teacher on the list with the right qualifications who wanted to go to a particular school was entitled to the job, sight unseen by the principal. The only mass exception to the seniority rule that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers supported was the racial-balance requirement, which led to some vacancies being labeled “white only” or “black only.” The union did not lend its support to individual teachers who challenged this in the early 1980s, and the teachers lost.

Now, the seniority system has given way to “site selection,” in which teachers must apply for each vacancy that they are interested in. Principals and leadership teams choose which candidates to interview and hire.

Any reference to race – or gender – in an application is viewed as discriminatory, a far cry from the era when race determined what vacancies a teacher could apply for.

Principals who want to increase the number of teachers of color in their building often have to go beyond the current system to do so, relying on networks and social media to encourage a broader variety of applicants.

“We can’t identify that,” said Lou Bellarmine, the District’s director of talent, referring to race, ethnicity, and gender. “It’s against the law.”

Finding a diverse talent pool

His office is concentrating on “increasing the funnel” so that the applicant pool for each school will be diverse. The District is recruiting heavily at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), has begun teacher residencies with Drexel and other universities targeted toward applicants of color, and has beefed up and diversified its recruiting staff.

Each of the District’s 16 regions has two “talent managers” that help principals meet their staffing goals, including that of diversity.

Several factors are in play in the trend toward resegregation. Most teachers prefer positions closer to where they live, and city neighborhoods remain segregated. Some schools have little or no teacher turnover. Others, most in high-poverty neighborhoods, face high turnover every year.

Principals say, however, that black applicants are scarce at some schools and in some areas of the city.

Siouda Douglas, the black principal of A.S. Jenks, where all the teachers are white, was excited two years ago when rare vacancies opened up at her school and she discovered that one of the applicants was black.

When she followed up, the applicant said it had been a mistake – the teacher meant to apply to J.S. Jenks in Chestnut Hill.

But this is complicated stuff. Even with its all-white faculty, A.S. Jenks in some ways is a model of diversity (see accompanying story).

Mary Lynskey, the principal of J.S. Jenks, said she also has to go out of her way to find non-white teachers.

Chestnut Hill, in Northwest Philadelphia, is still perceived as a mostly white neighborhood, she said, “and, ironically, many people think this is a white school. It is not, it is predominantly African American.”

Like many District veterans, Lynskey has her own story to tell. When she was new to the District, she remembers having limited choices of where she could teach because she was white. It was due to the consent decree, but she and other new employees were never formally briefed on the reason. She remembers her confusion and angst as she started her career.

As best she understood it, the reason was “because schools in white neighborhoods were always struggling to find black candidates.”

Nearly 30 years later, this is still an issue – even if the schools themselves, such as J.S. Jenks, now have predominantly black student bodies.

Last year, she said, she was able to fill five of seven vacancies with teachers of color due to intensive networking.

“This year, in particular, we attempted to find people who didn’t even think about leaving their schools,” said Lynskey. She enlisted black teachers she knew to contact friends or friends of friends.

“We sought to hire black candidates who did not originally apply to us,” she said. “We think it is important that our children can see themselves in the adults teaching them.” Now, she said, seven of her 20 teachers are black or Hispanic.

‘Representation matters’

The problem of finding enough black applicants is not limited to schools in majority white neighborhoods, of course.

Jeannine Payne is among the more than 50 percent of principals in Philadelphia who are black, a statistic that far exceeds the national rate of 10 percent (according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Education) and persists despite the decline in black teachers.

“I have to say that I did not have many teachers of color come to sit for interviews,” said Payne, principal of the Richard R. Wright Elementary School in North Philadelphia. “I would love to see more applicants of color come across my desk.”

Payne, who is in her fourth year as principal, recalled an incident earlier this year when a little girl walking up the steps in the school looked up at her proudly. “We have a Dr. Collins and a Dr. Payne,” the child said, referring to Payne and to a teacher who has a doctorate. The import was clear: It made an impact on the child that she interacted every day with “two black female doctors.”

“I am not in denial that representation matters,” she said. But she explained that when she is considering applicants, she looks for “how an adult talks about children, their interaction with families. I’m looking for the person before I figure out what body they inhabit. I’m looking for that.”

Payne said she would like to see more systematic “cultural competency” training for teachers, both black and white, so they can explore and understand implicit biases that lead to, as an example, much higher disciplinary referrals for black boys.

From a family of educators – her father was a renowned basketball coach at Strawberry Mansion High School – she has theories on why there aren’t more black teaching candidates: the widening inequality gap, the cost of a college education, the relatively low pay and low prestige of teachers.

“It takes a lot to get a black kid in college,” she said. Then, to rise on the pay scale, “you have to get a master’s” and then accumulate more credits, a “plus 30,” or get a second subject certification. Given all that, in her view, pursuing teaching “is a luxury reserved for non-minorities” and people with more means.

After her four years, her staff of 30 or so instructional staff members at the K-5 school is close to the citywide average of 69 percent white and 31 percent non-white, mostly black.

She is all for racial balance, but given the choice – thinking of that little girl on the steps – Payne would put black teachers with black students. The benefit is more direct, she said. Although exposing white students to black teachers is a worthy goal, its impact – the potential of a more humane society later – “is trickle-down. And the trickle-down isn’t fast enough.”

‘Needle in a haystack’

Individual teachers are often conflicted about where they are needed most. While the racial balance order was in effect, black teachers were rarely isolated in mostly white schools; now, some are.

Nova Derry teaches 2nd grade at Crossan Elementary School in the Northeast. She landed there because more than two decades ago, when she was looking for a position, its vacancy was designated “black only.” A counselor she knew, an older African American man, worked there and recommended it. She chose the school and has been there ever since.

Today, she is one of only two black teachers at the school. Its enrollment has about twice the percentage of white students as the District as a whole, but it was far more white when she first got there.

“Where I work, there is not a lot of turnover,” she said. Once teachers get there, she said, they rarely voluntarily leave. With few vacancies, there are few opportunities to bring in more African American teachers “or any other minority,” she said. “Students in Crossan speak 14 different languages, but there is no Asian teacher, no nothing.”

It bothers her that at her K-5 school, many students “will never have a homeroom teacher” who is nonwhite. “I think our students need to see that,” she said.

She is the PFT building representative and a member of the leadership committee that evaluates candidates to fill vacancies.

“Sometimes we have hundreds of applications … and we’re just looking at names,” she said. “It’s like a needle in a haystack.”

If the goal is to diversify the faculty, she said, “nobody is asking about racial balance of teachers, but I think it should be a consideration.”

As for herself, she has found a home at Crossan and is glad she made the choice.

“It’s more like a family,” she said. “Even though we don’t have a diverse staff, it doesn’t really show.” She adds: “Obviously if you look at data, we all are just people.”

Antoinette Davis has been at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush since 2015. She is one of only two black teachers at the 620-student school, located at the edge of the Far Northeast and with a student body that is 53 percent white.

“Teachers need to be diverse at schools, students should see all types of teachers,” she said. “I think students need to see different races of adults working together because we’re educators, we’re in an educational setting. How are we not teaching this big issue that affects America? How are we not explaining it and showing it can work, people can work together who come from different backgrounds?”

At Rush and at Penn Treaty in Fishtown, where she taught before, she said, she has had the occasional incident where “race became an issue.” Once a student called her a racial slur, and parents protested when she sought to incorporate a book in the curriculum by M.K. Asante, who went to Rush when it was a middle school. It was a memoir about his navigating his way through school and life as a precocious, rebellious black male in Philadelphia.

“I got the biggest pushback of my life having this book,” she said. “I got questioned about my educational background.”

Still, “I push for having diverse conversations in classrooms. I’ve done professional development at the school on culture and race.”

Davis has also experienced the opposite: Before Rush and Penn Treaty, Davis taught at Wakisha Charter, which had an all-black student body and a virtually all-black faculty, but had its charter revoked by the District for underperformance. She helped organize a union at the school, and the PFT arranged for Wakisha teachers to be offered spots in the District.

At Wakisha, founded as an Afro-centric school, only one or two of the teachers were white. “Some students felt like the white teachers couldn’t teach them the way the black teachers could. I don’t think that’s right either.”

Davis grew up in mostly white Bensalem and had mostly white teachers herself, several of whom mentored her and nurtured her love of literature and her desire to teach.

Given her complex history, she often thinks of where she belongs.

“Do I go back to my community? They need black educators. Or do I continue to do what I’m doing now, teaching middle-class, conservative Northeast families?” she said. “They need me, too. They need to know about different cultures and how to work with people who don’t look like them.”

Diversifying Blaine’s faculty

Gianeen Anyika, principal of Blaine Elementary School in North Philadelphia, where Kylie Newton does her student teaching, said that the older students – 7th and 8th graders – are always asking her a question.

“They’re always saying,’ why don’t we have more black teachers?’” Anyika said. “That’s something they’re able to articulate to their principal.”

She also understood that her parents felt more comfortable with African American teachers, recalling a conference with one over her child’s special education plan.

“The parent was against the placement being recommended for her son, and I could see she felt better when she saw the teacher was a black male. She felt better about that.”

Unlike A.S. Jenks or Crossan, Blaine, which is in a neighborhood plagued by deep poverty and trauma, has been at the center of staffing upheaval. In the 2014-15 school year, it received millions of extra dollars from the Philadelphia School Partnership to engage in a three-year turnaround process. Among other changes, half the faculty was replaced. A new cadre of teachers was brought on.

Anyika was the principal through all this, and she acknowledges that it has been a rough ride. Last year, the extra money disappeared and many of the teachers left. She found herself needing to replace much of her staff this year – she had 12 vacancies.

She spread the word on social media. She worked with Ervin Miller, her “talent partner” from the District’s central office, letting him know that she was listening to her students. She told him, “We are looking for African American teachers – males, women, it didn’t matter as long as it’s someone the children can relate to. I asked him to see how we could get them in the pool.”

She brings in as many applicants as she can for a personal interview. “I tell them I want to know who you are. Are you able to relate to children? I always say we’re changing lives here, that the children have so many external factors going on. The children ask them questions.”

She estimated that she had more than 100 people apply for the 12 vacancies. Seven of the 12 she hired last year were black.

She also had another strategy for increasing the number of teachers of color on her staff. Kylie Newton was a paraprofessional in a special education classroom, looking for a new start after short stints in journalism and merchandising. Anyika convinced her to get her education degree and become a teacher.

Maureen Brower (left) and Kylie Newton in their kindergarten classroom at Blaine Elementary School. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)

Newton enrolled at Gwynedd Mercy and began her student teaching at Blaine, assisting in the kindergarten classroom of Maureen Brower.

Brower, who is white, has been at the school for 10 years, through the faculty upheaval that accompanied the turnaround initiative. She came to Blaine partly because the racial-balance consent decree was still in effect – the vacancy was for “white only.” She grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and went to Catholic schools and Holy Family College.

She said she has found her home at Blaine.

“I always wanted to be in a school that needed my help the most,” Brower said. “The staff is so supportive. The kids want to come to school. They didn’t necessarily have the skills, but they wanted to learn. I can relate because, even though I went to Catholic schools, I had a poor education. I struggled as a reader, and none of my teachers noticed, not one, even though I had the same skin color as them.”

Newton also draws on her own experiences in school, remembering that she had just a “sprinkling” of black teachers at Duckrey and Conwell. At Girls’ High, she said, there were only four, although there was another kind of diversity, with teachers from other countries teaching foreign languages.

She, too, wants to be where she feels she is needed most. Anyika wants her to stay at Blaine after she becomes fully certified. That would be fine with Newton.

“My inclination would be working more with children in the African American population,” Newton said. “I feel they will have someone to look up to and relate to. That’s where I would love to be.”

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