Lack of minority teachers troubling

By jbleiler - Jackson, MI

As the new principal at Jackson Arts and Technology Academy this school year, Septembra Williams sees the imbalance of minority teachers to minority students at her school.

At the charter school of about 140 students, 64 percent of the student body -- 90 students -- are of color, according to the Michigan Department of Education's Center for Educational Performance and Information. Only about 15 percent of full-time teachers -- or two -- are minorities.

"We're doing everything we can to make it more proportional," said Williams, who is black. "It's hard trying to recruit people."

Jackson Arts and Technology is not alone.

In the Jackson County area and across the state, the percentage of minority teachers is not proportional to the percentage of minority students. Some say students are missing out because of the lack of diversity among teachers.

In Jackson County-area public schools:

* Ninety-six percent of 2,072 teachers during the 2007-08 school year were white. About 84 percent of the 32,900-plus students enrolled were white.

* Black teachers made up about 3 percent of the public teaching force, while Hispanic, American Indian, Asian and multiracial teachers combined to make up 1 percent. Minorities made up about 16 percent of the student body. About 12 percent of the students were black.

Jackson Public Schools officials said they are working to close the gap by recruiting at job fairs in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana.

"Our numbers are strong," said Ben Pack, assistant superintendent for human resources and secondary curriculum, referring to the number of minority teachers. "All these people brought extensive skills to the district."

In the Jackson district, 12 percent of full-time teachers last school year were minorities. About 47 percent of the district's enrollment was students of color. About 9 percent of the district's full-time teachers are black while 39 percent of the district's student population were students of color.

Mercedes Kestner, originally from Columbia, South America, has been teaching at Jackson Public Schools for more than 20 years. She is an English-language-learner teacher at Northeast Elementary School.

"I was thankful to JPS for hiring me," said Kestner, 51. "There's a great need to be able to have more minorities (in education) in general."

Twelve school districts and charter schools in the Jackson County area -- Columbia, Concord, da Vinci Institute, East Jackson, Grass Lake, Hanover-Horton, Jonesville, Michigan Center, Napoleon, Springport, Vandercook Lake and White Pine Academy in Leslie -- do not have any full-time teachers of color. Most of those districts have student populations that are at least 95 percent white.

The disparity between the percentage of minority teachers and minority students is similar statewide.

In Michigan public school districts during the 2007-08 school year:

* About 90 percent of the 112,000 teachers were white. Of the 1.6 million students enrolled, 71 percent were white.

* Minorities -- such as blacks, Hispanics, Asians and American Indians -- made up the other 10 percent of teachers. Non-white students made up about 30 percent of the student population.

"That's a national trend," said Tim Larrabee, president of the Michigan Association of Teacher Education. "I think because Michigan tends to be more segregated, it seems to be more apparent here."

Larrabee said students are rarely taught by teachers of different ethnic backgrounds. Stereotypes and pre-judgments can develop as a result, he said.

"It's a perennial problem that has been around for a long time," he said. "That is a problem we're always facing."

The shortage of minority teachers continues to be a problem throughout the United States, said David Saba, president of the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence in Washington, D.C. Of the approximately 3 million teachers in the nation, 2 million are white females, he said.

"It's one of those things that people don't like to talk about," Saba said about the lack of diversity. "It's seen as a profession dominated by white females. It's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Saba said there needs to be more programs that get minorities excited about going into the profession.

Mentor programs for student teachers could also help encourage more minorities to go into the professions, said W. Neal Holmes, director of the Call Me Mister program at Longwood University in Farmville, Va. Call Me Mister is an initiative at colleges and universities across the nation that seeks to recruit young men of diverse backgrounds into education.

"We're especially trying to get young African-American men to teach," Holmes said. He said it is important for black youths to see male role models of the same race.

He also said the program is designed to get people interested in teaching elementary school.

"That's when you really shape and contribute to a child's life."

He said the shortage of minority teachers has a tremendous impact on a student's education.

"If you don't see anybody that looks like you in that (teaching) position ... that's an unspoken message that this is something alien," he said. "You want to have classrooms that reflect the diversity of society at all levels."

January 11, 2009

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