Why does Baltimore struggle to find and retain black teachers? This group has ideas for how to help.

Baltimore Sun |

--After Freddie Gray's funeral, Gregory Haskins watched as fire and looting threatened to engulf his city. The unrest in 2015 pushed the Baltimore City native to apply for a teaching job in the same school system that educated him.

He earned a conditional certification, which allowed him to teach for two years while he worked toward reaching other licensing requirements. But between all the stresses of being a new teacher, he missed a key date to pass a required exam.

He was fired from his job as a vocational program teacher at Reginald F. Lewis High School -- and there was suddenly one less black man at the front of a Baltimore classroom.

Haskins shared his story at a recent public meeting on how to increase the disproportionately low number of black teachers in a school system where the vast majority of students are African American. The Black Teacher Recruitment and Retention Working Group worked for a year to develop recommendations to address the persistent gap, and they presented them Tuesday at the district's North Avenue headquarters.

Among their proposals: creating support systems to help teachers like Haskins pass the teaching exam and placing full-time mentors in schools with a large number of new, black teachers.

"I needed a mentor when I was there," Haskins told the group.

"We're sorry we were too late," a task force member responded, "but we're going to be early next time."

This year, about 45 percent of city teachers were black, compared with roughly 80 percent of students. It's a wide gap with potentially far-reaching consequences. Low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college, according to Johns Hopkins University studies.

The dearth of black educators is a problem across the country and the region. In Baltimore County, where about 40 percent of students are black, only about one in 10 teachers is.

The task force identified significant barriers keeping black people from becoming -- and remaining -- teachers in Baltimore. It cited the Praxis teaching exam, which research shows black candidates are more likely than white candidates to fail, and the "invisible tax" African American educators must grapple with. Black teachers often are shouldered with responsibilities far beyond what's required in the classrooms, like being expected by fellow white educators to work with and discipline all black students. White teachers in Baltimore are also one-and-a-half times more likely to get promoted to "model teacher" status, a designation that comes with higher pay.

Starting this fall the district will hire six full-time mentors to work in some of the district's neediest schools. In these buildings, many black teachers are just starting their careers and turnover is high. The mentors -- either veteran or recently retired educators -- will specifically target teachers with conditional certifications, like Haskins. About 75 percent of educators with these kinds of licenses are black.

Chief Human Capital Officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner, part of the working group's core team, said the district will monitor the effect this level of mentoring has on teacher satisfaction and retention before considering next steps. In a cash-strapped school system, he acknowledges, it might be hard to fully scale the program.

The task force also recommended the district tap into its pool of paraeducators to find classroom teachers. About 85 percent of people in these roles, which can include secretaries and instructional assistants, are black. That pool of people have already shown commitment to the district and established relationships with kids, can be used to find new teachers.

The district will relaunch a pipeline program with the goal of helping 20 paraeducators get certified to transition into teacher positions next year.

But the Praxis exam teachers are required to pass remains a barrier. Researchers found found black candidates pass the Praxis, which evaluates teacher candidates' general content knowledge, at lower rates than white ones.

City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said this can likely be traced to failings in the teacher candidates' own K-12 education. The district must work with potential educators, she said, to fill in these content gaps.

Grant-Skinner said the district will help minority teacher candidates prepare for the test, as well as monitor any potential changes to the state education department certification rules.

The group will "make sure our voice can be heard with a particular lens of ensuring the requirements don't have a negative effect on black teachers more than others," he said.

Within city schools, the task force agreed the district needs to do a better job recruiting students to return as teachers. But it's difficult, teachers say, if students are used to seeing mostly white faces at the front of the classroom.

At the end of the meeting, Santelises applauded the group for its work. As its members prepare to move forward, she reminded them of the past.

The disproportionately low number of black teachers -- nationwide, about 7 percent of public school teachers are black -- is a problem that traces back decades, she said.

It's in some ways an inadvertent legacy of Brown v. Board of Education. When the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling against school segregation, black children began attending formerly all-white schools. But their black teachers were often left behind, fired or demoted.

"The unintended consequences of integration was the decimation of the black educator brain trust," Santelises told the group. "You are building back that brain trust."

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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