When Sha’Diya Tomlin began attending Kirkwood High School three years ago, a white teacher asked her: “How many kids do you have?”
The teacher had not only assumed she was a teenage mother, but she had mistaken Sha’Diya for another black student.
Sha’Diya has had only one black teacher in high school, a fact that has weighed on her and at times caused her to doubt her self-worth.
“I can’t even really articulate exactly what it is, but being in a room full of people constantly every day who look nothing like you, it’s something that wears down on your subconscious,” Sha’Diya said. “It’s harder to learn when somebody doesn’t understand you or when you feel like somebody’s not going to understand you.”
Her experience with having few diverse teachers is common for students of color in the St. Louis region. More than a quarter of public schools in eight Missouri and Illinois counties — or 179 schools — had no teachers of color last year, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of data obtained from the state education departments for Missouri and Illinois.
In St. Louis-area schools, many students of color attend schools without teachers of color.
All told, more than 27,400 students, or 21.9 percent of black, Latino and Asian students, in the eight counties went to a school last year that had no teacher who looked like them.
“White students don’t have that problem,” Sha’Diya said. “They don’t have to think about, ‘I feel out of place here because of my skin color.’”
This mismatch in demographics mirrors a national reality. While half of students attending U.S. public schools were students of color in 2012, 82 percent of teachers were white.
Experts stress that just because a student of color has a white teacher doesn’t mean that teacher is less effective or cares less about that student.
“This is assuming teachers are equally good,” said Nicholas Papageorge, a Johns Hopkins University researcher who studies how a teacher’s race is connected to student achievement. “We’re talking about one thing that matters among many other things.”
But research also shows there are significant consequences when students lack teachers who look like them. Papageorge found in his research that black students who don’t have at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades are 29 percent more likely to drop out of school and 18 percent less likely to express interest in college.
That’s partly because white teachers are less likely to expect a student of color will be successful, research shows.
Another study by Papageorge found that white teachers are about 40 percent less likely than black teachers to expect that a black student will finish high school and 30 percent less likely to expect the student can finish college. That matters because teacher expectations and biases can determine whether a student is referred to advanced courses or gifted programs, how much attention a teacher gives a student and whether a student is suspended.
Students and educators of color will also testify to an intangible value in seeing somebody who looks like you at the front of the classroom.
“Just knowing that, hey, black people can go far enough to work at Kirkwood High School, it does something to the psyche of your mind,” said Najma Omar, a Kirkwood High senior. “Seeing somebody who’s black in a position of power, seeing them actually doing something good with their lives, and not on the news just being dead.”
Some school leaders stress that diversity benefits all kinds of students.
Normandy Superintendent Charles Pearson has dressed in a suit and tie ever since he was a teacher in the majority-white Clayton School District and an assistant principal in the majority-white Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District. There, Pearson said he was the first black teacher and black professional some of his students had seen. Pearson wore a tie and suit to show them that black people are professionals, too.
Some students asked Pearson to explain what “the projects” are, Pearson said. When students complained that school was canceled because the weather was too frigid, he reminded them that some students had to wait outside at bus stops to get to school because they had nobody to drive them. Some students saw him speaking to teachers at school one day and asked, why is President Barack Obama here talking to our teachers?
Now Pearson works in Normandy, where almost all students are black. He feels the same obligation to be a role model.
“It’s important for all children to see someone who looks like them, both in front of them and in the curriculum,” Pearson said. “It sends a message to them that it’s possible — people who look like me and sound like me can become professionals.”
A trickling pipeline
When school leaders are asked why they don’t hire more teachers of color, they most often say they don’t get enough applicants.
“The pool of candidates doesn’t exist,” said St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams. “The pipeline is just not there.”
That’s partly because aspiring teachers of color face worse chances of success at just about every point in the pipeline than white students do.
Not only are students of color underrepresented in higher education in general, but the teacher certification testing gap for students of color is as wide as 40 percentage points for some Missouri tests, said Beth Kania-Gosche, associate dean of education at Lindenwood University and president-elect of the Missouri Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Students of color also are less likely to enter a teaching program. Experts say that may be partly because students of color are more likely to have attended lower-performing schools.
“If they didn’t have a good school experience, they probably don’t want to be a good teacher,” Kania-Gosche said.
Only 139 black college students and 70 Latino students in Missouri graduated with a bachelor’s degree in teaching in 2016, compared to 2,586 white students, according to state data.
Students of color who graduate from teacher preparation programs then face sometimes-daunting odds of getting hired.
“We have up to 1,000 candidates for an elementary teaching position,” said Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost. “If it’s not 50 percent people of color applying — and it’s definitely not, it’s way, way, way less than that — then the likelihood of these odds aren’t there for someone of color to traverse the layers of the hiring process.”
The situation is flipped for districts such as St. Louis Public Schools that struggle to find any teacher applicants, and for hard-to-fill teaching spots such as high school math and science. It’s wishful thinking for school officials in those cases to hope that they’ll get teachers of color.
“We will hire every teacher we can right now,” Adams said.
The problem isn’t just recruiting more diverse teachers, however. Keeping them is another challenge.
Twenty percent more teachers of color left the teaching force than entered it nationwide in 2003-2004, and the turnover rate for teachers of color was 19.3 percent to white teachers’ 15.6 percent in 2008-2009, according to research by University of Pennsylvania Professor Richard Ingersoll. That’s largely because teachers of color, whether by choice or assignment, are more likely than white teachers to be working in hard-to-staff schools, Ingersoll found.
The overwhelming reason why teachers of color leave is not because they’re paid little or because they are more likely to work in high-poverty schools, but because they are unhappy with school management, Ingersoll said. Schools can fix that by giving teachers more freedom in running their classrooms, he said.
“Those are managerial issues, not money issues,” he said. “You can fix those without spending money.”
Though current numbers might suggest otherwise, the nationwide percentage of teachers of color has risen faster than the percentage of students of color.
About 18 percent of public school teachers were teachers of color in 2012, up from 13 percent in 1988, according to a 2016 U.S. Department of Education report. Most of that increase consisted of Latino and Asian teachers. The percentage of black teachers actually decreased.
Much of that overall increase in diversity could be attributed to teacher recruitment efforts, which tend to focus on urban or high-poverty districts.
School systems including East St. Louis, St. Louis Public Schools and KIPP St. Louis charter schools are looking at teacher residency programs, which recruit diverse individuals to become teachers and provide them an accelerated master’s degree and stipend in exchange for a multi-year commitment to work in the partner school districts.
Some districts, including Kirkwood, Rockwood and Clayton, hold diversity recruitment fairs, and some schools travel out of state to search for teachers.
Kirkwood has notably tackled teacher diversity not by launching teacher recruitment programs, but by changing the way it hires.
District officials realized that barriers in the typical hiring process for a high-performing district such as Kirkwood could be keeping diverse applicants from landing interviews.
Because the district typically gets more than 2,000 applicants for teaching positions in a year, the district used to give interviews primarily to teachers who graduated from certain colleges and teachers with experience working in a suburban district similar to Kirkwood, said Cindi Nelson, interim human resources director for the Kirkwood schools. An applicant also had a better chance of scoring an interview if he or she knew a Kirkwood employee.
“That’s something we’re trying to change the culture around,” Nelson said. “If we’re 90 percent white, are we also referring people who are 90 percent white?”
Kirkwood no longer filters applications for preferred colleges or previous employers. Administrators now hold interviews months ahead — starting in November for the following school year — so they have time to interview 100 applicants for a position, rather than just 10 or so as they once did.
Kirkwood also trains administrators who sit on selection committees to recognize their own biases — not just racial or gender bias, but bias against applicants who took a nontraditional path to becoming a teacher.
The point is to have Kirkwood officials “value diversity just as any other skill — the fact that there’s value in somebody bringing a different set of experiences than the ones that we currently have,” Nelson said.
Planting a seed
The work in increasing teacher diversity doesn’t all have to happen at the top. Teachers can encourage a more diverse workplace, too. They can be like Tamara Wells’ middle school teacher, Kathy Oster.
Wells attended Pattonville for middle school and high school through the city-county voluntary desegregation program. She was often one of just two black students in a classroom. Over seven years in Pattonville, she had just three black teachers.
One of Wells’ other middle school teachers, who was white, kept telling Wells that she couldn’t understand what she was saying or writing. The teacher asked Wells where she lived. Wells told her she lived in downtown St. Louis. The teacher said, “That explains it. You write the way you speak.”
What Wells heard her teacher tell her was that everything about the way she talked and wrote was wrong and shameful. So Wells stopped talking at school. She stopped writing in her journal. She didn’t have a close relationship with any teacher.
One day, her family’s apartment burned. They lost everything but what they were wearing.
When Wells returned to school, Oster surprised her with new and gently used items that she had collected from other teachers for Wells and her mother. Wells decided that she would become a teacher.
“It was then that I saw that teachers are human,” Wells said. “I hadn’t felt that in so long.”
Wells now teaches eighth-grade English at Hazelwood Central Middle School, where last year 96 percent of students and 28 percent of teachers were black. Wells started a classroom project called C.H.A.T. Academy, where students analyze their language and how it forms their identity.
It is Wells’ way of telling her students what she longed to hear as a student: They don’t have to be ashamed of the way they speak, where they come from or who they are.