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A Question of Quality: Minority teachers are a missing ingredient

Wednesday, February 05, 2003

By Carmen J. Lee, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Terry Jackson, a math teacher in Upper St. Clair School District, believes he's making a difference in the lives of his students far beyond helping them solve word problems.

Student teacher Frank White talks with Leda McGraw about an assignment in a second-grade class at Martin Luther King Elementary School on Pittsburgh's North Side. As an African- American male, White, a student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is a rarity in area classrooms. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

That's because he's one of just five black teachers in a district where 94 percent of the students are white.

"They need to see black role models. They need to see some black professionals," said Jackson, 27, a teacher at Fort Couch Middle School. "They need to get rid of stereotypes of minorities as being in gangs or mainly playing sports.

"Some kids asked me once, 'Can you dunk, Mr. Jackson?' I told them, 'No, all I can do is dunk doughnuts.' I want to break some of the stereotypes."

Mike Ivanusic and Rich Satcho are the flip side of Jackson's story.

Ivanusic, 30, is the middle and high school computer instructor for the Duquesne City School District. Satcho, 28, teaches physical education at Duquesne High School.

More in today's report

Online chart:
Diversity challenge

Nepotism loosely regulated by state, school districts

Join a Town Meeting on teacher quality

About the series

Day One: Examining the roots of uneven instruction quality in our schools

Day Two: A question of quality: Are teacher entrance tests tough enough?

Day Three: Do schools hire the best teachers? Probably not


The two men, both white, believe they also are making a difference in a district where nearly 90 percent of the students are black, and they are among the 90 percent of the teachers who are white.

"I don't think it should matter what race you are to work here," Satcho said, though he added that "it's good for students to have teachers of different races."

Jackson, Satcho and Ivanusic also belong to another teaching minority -- males. Men make up about a quarter of the public school teaching ranks in the United States and about a third in Pennsylvania.

The relative lack of men in the teaching profession does not draw a lot of concern, but several experts believe more minority teachers are needed, including in mostly white districts.

"Children need to see different models of teachers," said Mildred Hudson, chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers, a national advocacy group. "Diversity is part of what America is about. It doesn't have to be proven. It's a reality."

And good teachers of any color can encourage young people to enter the profession, said Margaret Burley, an African American teacher at Miller Elementary School in Pittsburgh and a Teacher Excellence Foundation award winner.

"If you're doing an outstanding job, people will look at you and say, 'I can do that,'" she said.

Does diversity matter?

Nevertheless, across Western Pennsylvania, school officials and teachers differ about whether a teacher's race has any special impact in the classroom.

And even if they endorse the idea of having a diverse teaching staff, most districts do not have special recruiting programs to find minority teachers, and often don't think they need to.

"I don't see any aggressive strategy to get more diversity in teachers or administrators," said Charles Gorman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Tri-State Area School Study Council. "It's not a high priority in the region."

Shaler Area School Superintendent Donald Lee echoed many local administrators.

"We want to find the best persons," he said. "We don't have an active recruitment of males or minorities."

Even some black administrators agree with that approach.

"We just look at who has the best qualifications," said Duquesne City Superintendent JoAnne Green-Wells, who is African American. "We do look for minorities and there have been some. But we don't do any special recruiting."

The result in Pennsylvania is that only 6.4 percent of all public school teachers are minorities, compared with 22.3 percent of the student population.

The most recent national figures are higher on both counts: 15.7 percent of the country's public school teaching staff and 36.9 percent of the students were minorities in 1999-2000.

A slim pool

Districts that want to aggressively recruit minority teachers have a small pool to choose from.

It's a problem that recruiters in several white-collar professions face because of the relatively low percentage of black students who get degrees from four-year colleges and universities.

Margaret Burley, who teaches third-graders at Miller Elementary School in Pittsburgh, says good teachers need to be role models for all children. Burley will be inducted into the Teacher Excellence Foundationís Hall of Fame in May. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

While the number of minority students earning bachelor's degrees steadily increased during the 1990s, according to the American Council on Education, and minorities as a group earned about 21 percent of all bachelor's degrees in 2000, African Americans received only 8.7 percent.

It's a "pipeline problem," said Thomas Carroll, executive director of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit organization dedicated to improving teacher quality nationwide.

"Students of color in elementary and secondary schools are less likely to get to college in the first place," he said. "When they get to college, their experience with school may not have been positive, and they may not see teaching as an attractive alternative."

In fact, the number of minority teachers has declined in recent years, and many education experts say it's because there have been growing opportunities in more lucrative fields that weren't as open in the past to people of color.

Matching backgrounds

The disadvantages of hiring only young, white, female teachers go beyond race, said Martin Haberman, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

He contended that, particularly in urban areas, school officials should seek out older, second-career teachers of varied races and both genders whose life experiences make them better able to manage a classroom and to make a more mature commitment to teaching.

"If you can't relate to children, it doesn't matter how much you know," he said.

Teachers from different ethnic and racial backgrounds often can explain subjects using cultural terms and contexts that help children from the same backgrounds understand the lessons, added Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, a professor of urban education at Emory University in Atlanta.

"It's a standard principle of good teaching, no matter the color of the child, to give examples that come out of their everyday lives," she said.

Must a teacher come from the same racial or ethnic group as a child to do a good job with these cultural translations?

Carla Rubino, 32, a white English teacher at mostly black Duquesne High School, doesn't believe her race keeps her from reaching her students, most of whom are black.

"My kids realize, 'She does fight for us,'" she said. "I love my kids, even when they give me a rough time."

Ivanusic, another white Duquesne teacher, has talked with some of his students, many of whom come from poor homes, about some of the difficulties he has faced. He said he wants them to know he understands at least some of what they're going through.

"My dad lost his job and had to go on unemployment," he said. "I paid for college myself. I didn't have a free ride. I got in a few fights growing up. ... If you can teach, you can teach. It doesn't matter whether you are male or female, black or white. It's how you carry yourself."

Recruiting strategies

The Pittsburgh Public Schools, Upper St. Clair, North Allegheny, Gateway and Quaker Valley are among the few districts that do have minority recruitment programs.

Robert Devlin, director of human resources at North Allegheny, said a minority recruiter on staff maintains contacts with colleges to find minority candidates who could be successful there.

Sto-Rox, a low-income district, belongs to a couple of recruitment services that try to help find minority teachers, Superintendent Anthony Skender said.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools have been involved in several projects over the years to help boost the ranks of minority teachers, said spokeswoman Pat Crawford.

They include an African American fellowship program in which teaching interns are recruited from black colleges, and a three-year partnership with Indiana University of Pennsylvania in which teachers' aides were given the opportunity to go to college and earn their teacher certification.

In the Farrell School District in Mercer County, some students of color who graduated from the district have come back to teach there, and school board members have used their community contacts to find minority candidates, said Superintendent Richard R. Rubano Jr.

With a teaching staff that is 17.5 percent black, Farrell has the third-highest percentage of minority teachers in Western Pennsylvania, after Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh. Nearly 78 percent of the students in Farrell are black.

In the end, though, the results of such initiatives have been unremarkable, particularly in suburban districts, where the number of minority teachers is often under a dozen.

Frank White works with second graders on the North Side. He is one of only three blacks in the teaching program at IUP, one of the largest education schools in the state. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

That ratio is mirrored in the region's most prolific education schools. Frank White Jr., 22, an African American senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, one of the largest education schools in Pennsylvania, said he has had only two other black classmates in education classes there.

He thinks the current emphasis on test scores could discourage some black students from pursuing teaching careers.

"Some people are not good test-takers and that weeds out a lot of good teachers," he said.

Several national educators said that districts wanting to increase teacher diversity should consider a variety of methods.

"[Recruiting at] black colleges is not enough, though it's a good first start," Emory's Irvine said. "You have to go into the black community to the black churches, sororities and fraternities to the people who know who and where the teachers are."

Another effective strategy is working with community colleges and four-year institutions to urge minority students to consider teaching as a profession and nurture their progress, Hudson said.

Still, Irvine said that as more and more minority teachers in their 50s and 60s retire, replenishing their numbers will be difficult.

Next in the series

Are you frustrated with your child's teachers? There are ways to help ensure the quality of your district's teachers.


That's why she's been devoting more time to training teachers of any race how to relate to minority students, whose numbers are growing across the nation.

"White teachers can do it if they are trained to do it. We can't wait for more African American teachers," Irvine said. "It's not so much matching the skin color as the cultural experience.

"If a white teacher has similar experiences or the training, they can have an ear for the dialect, understand what kids are trying to say and translate it into standard English.

"I can train you to get an ear for it."

Carmen Lee can be reached at clee@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1884.

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