In 2013 I read a story in the New Haven Independent that hit me hard. A young football star at the predominately black Hillhouse High School in New Haven talked about the importance of having African-American male teachers because they could “relate more to the students.”
Yet he was talking in theory. In 14 years as a New Haven Public School student he’d never had a black male teacher. Not one.
Dr. Thomas S. Dee, now a professor of education at Stanford University, concluded a decade ago that students typically learn better from those who share their racial identity. Dr. Dee’s conclusions may not sit well with some or perhaps many. What is evident is that the workforce in position today is falling short of the expectations that we should all have for students today.
New Haven is hardly alone in its workforce disconnect with its students. About five-in-six students are black, Latino or Asian while about four-in-five teachers are white. Garth Harries — the Superintendent of New Haven Schools — told the reporter that the workforce “reflects the applicant pool.” As a result, the district’s teachers are largely white, primarily female, mostly suburban and — if research holds true — substantially “not prepared to deal with the growing number of diverse students in the schools.”
In short, there is an enormous need to broaden the applicant pool and diversify — in race and gender — the educator.
For the Cities of Promise — starting with New Haven, Pittsburgh, Denver, Buffalo, Peoria and Kalamazoo — comes the burning question: “What are your Promise programs going to do about that?”
At a time when fewer and fewer students are interested in studying education in the U.S., it leaves an enormous opportunity for students of color to return to their hometowns and make a huge difference for those sitting in the same classrooms where they had once sat.
As Promise programs not only bridge the transition from high school to college, they often address economic development by fostering opportunities in local businesses for those interested in returning home. Local school districts are always among the leading employers in a city and — working in conjunction with Promise programs and their college partners — there is a perfect opportunity to “hire within” by targeting and recruiting high-potential scholars and enticing them with the possibilities.
Superintendents in the Cities of Promise should never again explain a dearth of minority teachers by saying that it simply “reflects the applicant pool.” They should put some skin in the game to extend opportunities for their own graduates to educate, inspire and transform their current students.
When a city the size of New Haven — roughly 130,000 residents — has an annual school budget nearing a half-billion dollars, it can find a way to make a commitment to minority teachers and its own homegrown pool. And it can surely find a way to transform its hiring practices.