By Emily Olsen
David Gregg has been working at Nicholas Senn High School for more than a decade, watching the “very diverse” school transform from academically struggling to a well-regarded neighborhood high school.
The Edgewater school is filled with students from all over the world, around 65 different nationalities, including large populations of African-American and Hispanic students alongside smaller groups of their white and Asian classmates, and those students can speak about 45 languages.
But even as the students improved academically, Gregg said the school faced new challenges.
“By broad district measures, we became a much higher-performing school,” Gregg said. “But when you dug down, you noticed that the achievement gap between students of color, and white students or Asian students was not only still there but actually exacerbated. And I think that actually coincided with the whitening of our teaching staff.”
Other schools in Chicago face similar issues; very white teaching staffs for largely minority students. In Chicago Public Schools, half of the teachers are white, compared with only 9 percent of white students. Meanwhile, the district serves 39 percent African-American and 46 percent Hispanic students.
These numbers are meaningful to children, said Susan Moore Johnson, a Harvard University education professor who spoke along with Gregg at an Illinois Humanities event at Kenwood Academy High School on recruiting and retaining teachers of color.
“When you have a diverse faculty, everyone stands to gain,” Johnson said.
She said studies have shown teachers of color tend to have higher expectations for students of color; they’re able to serve as role models; and they can help combat stereotypes while students and other teachers learn to work cross-culturally. Some students may even learn more when taught by a teacher of the same race.
But that doesn’t mean there’s one easy solution to create diverse teaching staffs.
“We would basically resegregate all schools if all students had all teachers of their same race and ethnicity,”Johnson said. “It’s not so much to say that’s the answer, but having a diverse teaching force is really important.”
For one, recruiting and retaining new teachers can be difficult. Studies have shown around 41 percent of brand-new teachers leave the field entirely in five years, according to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education. It’s even worse for teachers of color, who are more likely to work in schools with the most low-income students and fewest resources.
However, there are also more minority teachers entering schools than decades past. For example, 12.4 percent of teachers were part of minority groups, while the number grew to 17.3 percent in 2011-2012.
Johnson said the problem starts at the very beginning of the “teacher pipeline.” Fewer people of color choose to study education in college, and they’re less likely to pass teacher certification exams. And as women and men of color have the opportunity to pursue careers once dominated by white men, they might decide teaching isn’t for them.
“This is the whole question of whether teaching is still an attractive and rewarding career,” Johnson said. “Teachers’ pay is low compared with professions that require comparable education. The social status of teachers has declined as people have been extremely critical of schools.”
But some schools and organizations, like Senn and Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park, are working to recruit and retain more teachers of color. One of Senn’s newer programs allows the new hires to get together monthly to discuss how they’re fitting in and where they might need help.
“There’s a support mechanism and that support mechanism is going to help retain teachers,” Gregg said.
So what works in terms of recruitment and retention of teachers of color? Johnson said schools most successful in hiring and keeping teachers of color recruit locally and continually, while including current teachers in hiring decisions. They also ensure teachers of color are respected by not pulling them in to deal with every race issue, but not excluding them from discussion, either.
Kenwood Principal Gregory Jones has been actively trying to hire more teachers of color, seeing “a significant decline of teachers of color” in the district.
The Illinois State Board of Education backs up what Jones has seen, at least for African-American teachers. In 2006, 33 percent of Chicago Public Schools teachers were black, and that number dropped to 22 percent by 2015. At Kenwood, around 83 percent of the high schoolers are African-American, but less than 20 percent the faculty are African-American, according to Jones.
But Jones said the school is making progress this year.
“Of the eight teachers we hired, 60 percent were teachers of color,” he said. “That’s huge.”