Non-white students don't often have the luxury of learning from – or aspiring to be – a teacher who looks like them.
It's not that they can't learn from white teachers, but the process is made easier when there is an affinity and cultural connection between student and teacher, according to Micaela Appellaniz, a 17-year-old student at the Emerson School of Hospitality, and Malik Patterson, 18, who attends Middle Early College in Buffalo.
Both students were part of a panel, that also included educators, that grappled Thursday with the question of how to improve educator diversity in schools across Buffalo and Erie County.
Appellaniz, a Latina student in the Buffalo schools, has had only one teacher of a Latin background.
Patterson, an African-American student who attended suburban and charter schools before Buffalo ones, has never had a black male teacher.
Asked if they had ever aspired to become teachers themselves, they both responded no -- because no one had ever even planted the idea in their heads.
"We don't really see a lot of people in (the teaching) profession that look like us. So a lot of people might think, 'Oh, I can't be a teacher," Patterson said. "You see African Americans, as I said earlier, as lunch ladies and in professions like that, and think this is all it is or what I'm capable of."
A study by the Education Trust - New York, a nonprofit group that advocates for students of color and those of low income, bears out what Patterson and Appellaniz told an audience of about 80 people who attended the panel discussion held Thursday in WNED studios on Lower Terrace.
According to Francisco Araiza, senior data and policy analyst with the trust, the report found that strong educators play a central role in closing achievement gaps for students of color.
Having teachers of color improves performance in reading and math for students of color, reduces suspension rates, decreases drop-out rates and increases student aspirations, Araiza said. It also helps create an equitable and inclusive learning environment for students and teachers.
Nearly 100 students, teachers and school district leaders, along with other experts in Buffalo, were interviewed for the study.
"What we found is that students felt they had a special connection with their teachers of color, often resulting in greater engagement and higher expectations in the classroom. Teachers of color also echoed this special relationship with the students and extending into their families, as well," Araiza told Buffalo News columnist and editor Rod Watson, who moderated the panel.
Teachers of color also face challenges of racism and prejudice in the classroom and are often frustrated by an educational system that does not put students first, the study found.
"Here, in Erie County, there are no Asian principals and only two assistant principals. They're both here in the Buffalo Public School system. There are two Latino principals, and they're both in the Buffalo Public School system. There are 26 black principals, but only one of those is found outside of the Buffalo Public School system," Araiza said.
Those principals are more likely to have a larger share of black and Latino teachers and black and Latino students.
"That speaks to the issue of segregation that we find underlies this whole issue. And, so, there's a lack of exposure for whites, in particular," Araiza said.
"A lot of times, black, Latino and Asian teachers are leaned on to create that sort of connection for white teachers. That can lead to feelings of being overworked and under-compensated for that type of work," he added.
Felice Brandy, McKinley High School's Urban Academy teacher, backed up the report's finding that there needs to be a a broader focus on making sure all teachers can support all students.
"This doesn't mean every teacher has to be a teacher of color. This means that when we're sitting down at the table as teachers, we have teachers of color who are there who can cross communicate…You know, others might not understand. So it's very important to talk to your colleagues about it," Brandy said.
Derek Baker is the new principal of Math Science Technology Preparatory High School and Middle School. Baker said he has only one African-American teacher at his school, while the entire staff of teacher assistants and teacher aides are black.
Over his 10-year teaching career, Baker said he was often the only black teacher in his school and had many times heard white teachers complain that the majority black students in their charge didn't really want an education, or lament that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink."
"I said, 'Your job is not to make them drink; your job is to make them thirsty,'" he said.
"Whether you're white or black, you still should reach a kid," Baker said.
Constance D. Evelyn, a panelist, superintendent of schools for the Valley Stream Union Free District on Long Island, said her district had a plan in place to improve diversity for a decade before she arrived.
"I walked into a district that valued diversity and saw it as something important in terms of the reflection in their classrooms. So when you set that kind of vision and goals, you have to have measureable targets," Evelyn said.
Buffalo schools superintendent Kriner Cash and Board of Regents Catherine Collins gave opening remarks at Thursday's forum, highlighting the importance of improving diversity in the district.