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Diversity lags in teaching ranks in Buffalo area schools

Two-thirds of the students in the Buffalo Public Schools are either black or Latino, while 87 percent of their teachers are white.

Four out of 10 students in Niagara Falls are black or Latino, while 93 percent of their teachers are white.

And at Cleveland Hill, 37 percent of students are black or Latino, while there is one African-American teacher.

In fact, a third of all schools across the state do not have a single black or Latino teacher, and more than 115,000 Latino and black students go to a school with no teachers of color, according to a new report issued Tuesday by The Education Trust-New York, a nonprofit that advocates for students of color and those of low income.

Advocates argue that minority teachers may better understand the cultural and racial backgrounds students bring with them into the classroom, which can lead to improved academic performance among minority students as well as a decrease in suspensions and dropout rates.

The report also makes the case that minority teachers can serve as role models for young people of color, while exposing white students to more minorities in positions of authority.

So where are all the minority teachers?

That's something administrators would like to know.

"The difficulty is finding interested candidates," said Cleveland Hill Superintendent Jon MacSwan.

He said the district has an African-American teacher and administrator, and is always trying to hire more.

"We don’t get many minority candidates taking a look at Cleve Hill," he said. "Ideally your faculty and staff demographics would mirror your student population."

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, agreed. One of the problems, he said, is that fewer people, in general, are getting into the teaching profession.

"It's not just minorities," said Mark Laurrie, superintendent in Niagara Falls, "all candidates are down."

At Cheektowaga Central, 42 percent of students are black or Latino, while only 3 percent of the faculty is.

"We had actually had more, but we've lost several minority teachers to administrative positions in other districts," Superintendent Mary Morris said.

She said several Cheektowaga graduates have gone into teaching — in Buffalo. She said it is difficult, sometimes, to attract African-American and Latino teaching candidates to the suburbs where they will be in the minority on the faculty. One way is through hiring substitute teachers of color, so they get to know the district and administrators get to know them, she said.

"This has always been a district that has looked for diversity, the only thing is there's not a lot of African-Americans going into education," said Lashonda McKenzie, one of two African-American teachers at Cheektowaga Central High School.

McKenzie acknowledged minority students do tend to seek her out, and each year at graduation time she encourages some of them — particularly the males — to consider teaching.

"I would argue it's the pay. I think that would be the No. 1 turnoff for people," McKenzie said. "It's one of those careers you have to have a master's degree, but you may start out at $40,000."

Worse in the suburbs

The Education Trust also noted that schools need to do a better job educating students of color — too many of whom are left unprepared for college and careers like teaching.

“This in turn magnifies the shortage of teachers of color,” the report said.

The national group's New York affiliate released the report Tuesday, calling on school districts to place a greater priority on teacher diversity for the benefit of both minority and white students alike.

"The story is not a big city story, but really much more a suburban story," said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York. "A story about school districts that have become significantly more diverse in terms of their student body, but not in terms of their workforce."

The report brings to light data from the State Education Department that shows:

  • Disparities are statewide: Blacks and Latinos make up 43 percent of the student enrollment across New York State, but just 16 percent of the teacher workforce.
  • It is less of an issue in New York City: While New York City still has a wide discrepancy — 65 percent minority students compared to 32 percent minority teachers — that ratio is far better than other school districts in the state.
  • Upstate is far behind: Fewer than 1 in 5 teachers are black or Latino in Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse — three of the state’s so-called Big 5 urban districts.
  • Big problems exist outside big cities: Teacher diversity is often overlooked in smaller districts, but it is here that black and Latino students are far more likely to have zero exposure to minority teachers.
  • There is better representation among school leadership: Black or Latinos make up 44 percent of Buffalo’s principals and 35 percent of its assistant principals.

In addition, the report encourages districts to step up recruitment and pay closer attention to the retention of minority teachers.

Ending the 'circular argument'

MacSwan said Cleveland Hill has had meetings on how to increase the number of minority candidates, and continues to work to increase hiring.

"It is absolutely the right thing to do to figure out a way to have your faculty represent the children they serve," said Morris, of Cheektowaga Central. "I think it does make a difference."

In Niagara Falls, Laurrie said, the district has started several initiatives in recent years, including a "grow your own" program, offering scholarship dollars and partnering with Niagara County Community College to provide a teacher's academy.

"I think if we wait for teachers of color to come to us we will never close that gap," Laurrie said, "so it's incumbent upon us to go search for minority candidates and invite them to come back to the city and work with us."

In Buffalo, district officials went as far as traveling to Puerto Rico earlier this year to recruit bilingual teachers, hiring nine who started in September.

The district also is partnering with Medgar Evers College, a predominately black institution in Brooklyn, to bolster participation of minorities in careers as teachers.

"Finding and filling professional staff roles with qualified candidates of color is a local, regional and national critical concern at this time," said Kriner Cash, superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools.

In addition, Buffalo partnered with its teachers union and SUNY Buffalo State to start the Urban Teacher Academy this year at McKinley High School, introducing the program’s first class of ninth graders to the teaching profession.

As the students move through the program, they will get experience in such topics as special education, be matched with a mentor in the school system and get field experience before graduating high school with 12 college credits. Students who want to go on to become teachers will receive a full-tuition scholarship to Buffalo State. Upon graduation from college, the students will get preference for jobs in the district, as long as they commit to working in the city schools for at least five years.

“It’s not like all of the students’ marks are going to surge,” Rumore said, “but it provides a role model for kids and a little extra motivation to say ‘I can do that. Maybe I will be a teacher.’ ”

"It's a circular argument," Laurrie said, "Kids don't see themselves in the teachers in front of them, so they don't see that as an opportunity."

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