by Rachael Tutwiler Fortune - The Florida Times-Union

As we close out Black History Month, I believe Jacksonville has an opportunity to make history by investing in black educators.

Research has shown that teacher diversity helps all students, especially students who look like them. One study found that low-income black boys are 39 percent more likely to graduate high school if they have just one black male teacher in elementary school. That is an astounding figure from a rigorous, long-term study.

Education experts offer a couple explanations for this. One is representation: Black teachers are living proof to students that they can achieve great things in college and career. Another is cultural responsiveness: Black teachers who share the background of their students may be able to relate to them more easily, and be less likely to have implicit biases that negatively impact students.

This month, Jacksonville Public Education Fund is releasing new research about teacher recruitment and retention in Duval County. Our in-depth analysis of three years of data from Duval County Public Schools shows Duval County is keeping pace in a very difficult environment for teacher recruitment and retention. Digging deeper, we see the opportunities for improvement are around closing the opportunity gap for low-income students and students of color.

One of the most promising solutions is diversifying our teacher workforce.

Nationwide, public school teachers aren’t yet representative of our diverse public school students. That holds true in Duval County, too. Here, Black students make up about 45 percent of our public school students, while Black teachers make up only 29 percent of the teacher workforce. Black male teachers represented less than 6 percent of the teachers employed by Duval County Public Schools between 2016-17 and 2018-19. Make no mistake — exceptional teachers can deliver great results regardless of race — but on the whole, students benefit from diversity among the many teachers they learn from during their education.

At JPEF, we’re excited to play our part as an independent think-and-do tank that convenes educators and community partners around proven solutions for schools. As a result of this research, we’re working with leading experts to help us develop strategies to accelerate efforts to diversify the teacher workforce in Duval County. We’ll be asking for input from educators and partners across the community to create a coordinated plan of action and develop the resources to support it.

I grew up right here, going to schools in the Urban Core, and I can attest that the conversation about race has changed in Jacksonville over the last year. I’ve felt renewed hope as I’ve spoken with many community leaders who are open-minded about the legacy of systemic racism and looking for concrete ideas in our next chapter of progress toward racial equity and opportunity for all.

This Black History Month, I’m dreaming of a community where our children’s potential is manifested by the teacher standing in front of them. Where children growing up in poverty find steady, rewarding work in our very own schools. Where education outcomes improve for our most vulnerable students.

That’s the history I believe we can make together.

Rachael Tutwiler Fortune is the President of the Jacksonville Public Education Fund. Learn more at Prospective teachers can contact to learn about career opportunities. High school students interested in teaching can apply now for the Urban Education Scholarships at the University of North Florida.