How California Districts Are Looking to Recruit and Retain Black Teachers Amid a Shortage

Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Oakland teacher Michael Obah, right, works with a student on a science assignment. Obah credits his district’s teacher pipeline program for encouraging him to earn his teaching certificate.

A growing body of research shows that black students who have at least one black teacher growing up are more likely to complete high school and enroll in college than those who don’t.

But California still has a pitiful lack of black teachers.

Experts attribute the lack of Black K-12 teachers in California to a number of barriers, including underrepresentation in teacher qualification programs, as well as workplace discrimination that pushes some to leave the profession.

As America tries to account for racial injustice, some California school districts are adopting teacher pipeline programs that specifically target potential black teachers, while also making efforts to retain teachers and listen to what might turn them off.

Data from the California Department of Education shows that in the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year available, only 3.9% of state public school teachers—about 12,000—were black, according to Ed-Data. Meanwhile, black students — about 335,000 — made up 5.4% of the state’s enrollment.

Back to a calling

Michael Obah, a biology teacher at MetWest High School in Oakland, said the lack of black teachers in California inspired him to return to his “vocation” and leave a well-paying accounting job in San Francisco. Obah was a secondary school teacher in his home country of Ghana for five years before immigrating to the United States in 2001.

“The amount of money I made was not what made me happy,” Obah said. “I read the news and saw minorities struggling, people who look like me, who can’t get a job or a house and have to go through a lot of struggle to perform in school.”

Obah said he was able to continue the career change thanks to Oakland Unified’s Grow Our Own programs. The teacher residency program pays student teachers a stipend of $15,000 while earning their credentials and apprenticeship under a mentor. In addition to the stipend, Obah said he has also received emotional support, workplace support, help with test preparation and interviews and links with Oakland schools for jobs.

New barrier-breaking programs

Governor Gavin Newsom and lawmakers have allocated $350 million in the 2021-22 budget for one-time grants to develop or expand new or existing teacher residency programs. UC Berkeley Graduate School of Education associate professor Travis Bristol, chair of the Department of Education’s Educator Diversity Advisory Group, said the cost of teacher preparatory programs is one of the major barriers to the black teacher pipeline. Funding for residency programs indicates “some real focus” by the state on trying to break down that barrier, Bristol said.

Bristol said revenue surpluses in recent years and additional federal funding through the US bailout have put the state in a good financial position to invest in such programs. The state is also in a good political position for such efforts. Head of state public education Tony Thurmond and the president of the state school, Linda Darling-Hammond, have spoken in support of hiring more black teachers.

“There’s a policy moment here in the state to really set the needle on teacher diversity,” Bristol said.

Oakland Unified’s “pipeline” programs work to attract, grow, develop and retain black educators in the city, said Sarah Glasband, the district director of talent development, recruiting and retention. Pipelines are programs designed to give underrepresented groups the resources they need to enter specific professions.

Some Oakland Unified programs are aimed at substitute teachers and other district employees who want to become teachers. The district also provides support for teachers going through alternative licensing routes, Glasband said, offering debt relief, preparation for licensing tests and payment of tuition.

The result is an increase in the net retention rate of black teachers from 73% in 2016-17 to 86% in 2020-21.

During 2020-21, black students made up 22.1% of Oakland Unified’s enrollments and 19.9% ​​of the district’s teachers.

A long way to go

Obah, the biology teacher, said he saw firsthand the under-representation of black teachers early in the qualification process. He was the only person of color of about 40 students in his science teacher training college at Cal State East Bay.

“My fellow students were very inclusive, but there’s always something in the background when you look around and you’re the only person of color,” he said.

A December 2020 analysis by TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) found that nearly every state had higher percentages of teachers identifying as white compared to white public school students. Nationwide, nearly two-thirds of participants in teacher preparatory programs were white, while 47% of public school students were white.

Jacob Guthrie, chief of teacher recruitment, selection and retention for Los Angeles Unified’s Black Student Achievement Plan, said the underrepresentation of people of color — especially men of color — in higher education has led the district to have its own in-house. Credentialing Program, which is approved by the State Commission on Teacher Credentials. The program allows substitute teachers, paraprofessionals, administrative assistants and even bus drivers to become certified teachers while earning a salary and benefits at their original jobs, Guthrie said.

Make the difference

Obah said he shares a special bond with black students.

“I feel like they’re in a relationship with me, and I’m dealing with them,” he said. “They’re curious about Africa, our heritage alone is a strong bond, and I think they see me in them, and they can get closer to me.”

He has had black students say they participate more in his class than other classes. One day, Obah said, a student came to him in tears and said he was having suicidal thoughts and felt that he was “not competent, not worthy.” Obah said he “grabbed the opportunity” and assured the student that there was nothing wrong with him – that it was up to the teachers to present the lesson content in a way that he can learn in a stress-free environment.

“I’m sure he bypassed other teachers and didn’t collapse, but with me he was vulnerable,” Obah said. “He spoke to me, and I spoke to him and was able to refer him to a school psychologist who could help. For me that was a powerful moment, a connection because he was a black student, and I am a black teacher.”

The toll of black teachers

Deyango Harris, who teaches special education at Pleasant Hill’s College Park High School, has felt like the only black teacher at his school. He was also the only black teacher at the school where he previously worked.

Harris said on multiple occasions he felt his concerns were not being taken seriously and that he was being treated unfairly because of his race. He said a series of incidents prompted him to file a discrimination complaint with the school’s human resources department. One problem was that he was the only teacher in his department who had to constantly switch between classrooms, which Harris—who has taught for more than a decade—is typically reserved for beginning teachers.

Adam Clark, Superintendent of Mt Diablo Unified School District – which includes College Park High – said via email that he and the district board are “committed to making sure all students, families and staff feel safe and welcome.” to feel.” Clark declined to comment on Harris’s situation.

“We take reports of discrimination seriously and follow governance policies in all investigations,” Clark said.

If school administrators want to retain black teachers, Harris said, they need to get serious about providing mental health support. And they need to understand the micro-aggressions they undergo on a regular basis.

“They don’t realize the mental toll it takes on a black educator, day in and day out, in a predominantly white institution,” Harris said.

One of LA Unified’s focuses on retaining black teachers is addressing what’s known as the “invisible tax” on black male teachers, a concept that former U.S. Secretary of Education John King wrote about in the Washington Post in 2016. The Invisible Tax describes how black teachers are subjected to stereotypes by non-black peers, such as being assigned to solve disciplinary problems with black students, or the assumption that they want to be involved in athletics.

The district provides professional development opportunities for school principals to address this issue on their campuses and conducts focus groups for teachers to discuss their experiences and share suggestions with district administrators.

Harris said he is determined to stay at the school, in part because of his work with the school’s Black Student Union. He heads the sorority, which consists of about 60 students of different races. Harris keeps his classroom open at lunchtime for the club, playing music and letting students filter in and out. Some black students tell him he’s the only adult they’re comfortable with, Harris said. The students also tell him that some feel racist aggression, hear the N-word used on campus, and feel that the incidents are not properly disciplined.

“If I could be the African-American guy that those students can look up to or look up to for some cultural relevance, someone who gets them, I’d be happy to do it. It’s not an unwilling kind of pressure, it’s good pressure,” Harris said. “If it hadn’t been for them, I would have already left.”

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