Teacher diversity lacking

Published 11:10 am Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Classroom staff doesn’t reflect the student body

By Ryan Kushner

Staff writer

The Isle of Wight County public school division has a racial disparity within its teaching workforce that it is finding difficult to overcome.

Currently, the division’s teacher demographic is 89 percent white, and 10 percent black, with 1 percent identifying as “other,” as compared to the overall county population, which is 73 percent white and 23 percent black and the remaining 4 percent falling under Asian, Hispanic or two or more races.

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Residents have taken notice.

A foundation dedicated to supporting black teachers has arisen in Isle of Wight to combat what appears to be both a local and national shortage of minority teachers in the workforce, as neighboring school divisions appear to be struggling with teacher diversity as well. Surry County Public Schools, however, is seemingly bucking the trend and finding a balance. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

A national shortage

As the student population in Virginia continues to diversify, the diversity of its teacher workforce is shrinking.

Virginia public schools, as well as school systems nationwide, are in the midst of a severe teacher shortage, and one aspect of the shortage appears to be a disproportionate decline in the number of black educators.

A report released this August by a state task force charged with diversifying Virginia’s educator pipeline found that though 48.7 percent of students in Virginia are non-white, less than half, 21.4 percent, of the state’s teaching population identify as non-white.

The state diversity task force’s report also notes a relatively recent decline in enrollment of minority students in traditional teacher preparation programs, which dropped to 33 percent in 2016-17 (a fall of more than 50 percent since 2010-11).

The national average of minority enrollment in teacher preparation programs is at 25 percent, according to the study.

Isle of Wight: “The applicant pool is just not there”

Isle of Wight superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton said that the disproportionately low number of black teachers in the division is due to a lack of minority candidates coming through teacher preparation schools and entering the profession.

“There are not as many candidates, and that’s part of what is causing this everywhere,” Thornton said of the apparent shortage of black teachers in the profession. “… The applicant pool is just not there.”

Dr. Denise Littleton, Dean of the School of Education at Norfolk State University, said she has also noticed a shortage of black students pursuing a career in education, noting that there are opportunities in other career paths that require less licensing and have more competitive salaries, a factor the task force’s study also touched upon.

Cheryl Elliott, the executive director of Human Resources for the Isle of Wight school division, said that the application process for the division is all done online.

“We have no way of knowing the ethnicity of an applicant,” Elliott said, until the applicant is called in for an interview.

Thornton said the division has been fortunate to have several black administrators working in its schools, including three black principals and two black assistant principals.

Despite the overall shortage of teachers at both the state and national level, Thornton said the division still receives a good number of applications for open positions, which he credits to a positive teaching environment and good salaries.

The division gets most of its applications in the summertime, but very few of its applicants are fresh out of college, according to Elliott.

 “You always want diversity in all of your staff, because you want students seeing different ethnicities in every type of position,” said Thornton. “So, of course, we would love to see more diversity.”

The student population in Isle of Wight County schools is 27 percent black and 63 percent white, the other 10 percent identifying as Asian, Hispanic or two or more races.

Isle of Wight is not the only area school division with a disproportionately low number of black teachers employed, however.

In Newport News Public Schools, where the student population was 53 percent black last year, 31 percent of its current teaching population is black and 65 percent is white.

Similarly, in Suffolk Public Schools, the demographics of students and teachers seem to be flipped, and the division’s student population, which was 55 percent black and 32 percent white last year, currently has a teacher demographic that is 32 percent black and 66 percent white.

Surry is something special

When it comes to Surry County Public Schools, however, it’s a much different story.

The small school division’s teaching population is 47 percent black and 51 percent white, a number that closely reflects the current student demographics in the school system, though not by design, according to Surry superintendent Dr. Michael Thornton.

Dr. Michael Thornton also acknowledged the shortage of minority students enrolling in teacher preparation programs, but the shortage hasn’t seemed to affect Surry’s ability to attract a diverse teaching population.

Last year, Surry County schools underwent a “significant turnover” of 22 teachers, most of whom retired, according to Dr. Michael Thornton. That’s about 25 percent of the division’s entire teaching population.

The schools were able to fill 21 of those open positions over the summer, and of those newly hired, about 50 percent were white, and 50 percent were black, according to Dr. Michael Thornton.

Most of those new hires were veteran teachers coming from other divisions, Surry’s Dr. Thornton noted.

Thornton of Surry said that when a new position opens, the division advertises on its website and on teacher.com, and attends career fairs at nearby colleges and universities.

He credits the division’s small classroom sizes, which have a student-teacher ratio of about 15-1, as a strong selling point for teachers, as well as high starting salaries and the fact that the division is fully accredited by the state.

“Because we haven’t had a systemic issue with attracting and retaining African-American teachers, we haven’t had to go that next level of strategy” of actively attracting more minority teachers to the division, Dr. Michael Thornton said. “Because we’re very fortunate that our teachers are highly qualified and we’ve been able to attract a good balance of African-American and Caucasian [teachers].”

According to VDOE, 65 percent of teachers in Surry County had a Master’s degree in 2016-17. The number of instructors with Master’s degrees was more than Isle of Wight, where 52 percent of teachers had a Master’s degree last year.

Dr. Michael Thornton also noted that the division employs “common ground” strategies in its hiring practices, where teachers employed in the division will travel to career fairs held at their alma maters to speak with students about their experiences in Surry.

Dr. Michael Thornton said that diversity in the school system is “critical” to providing a well-rounded educational experience.

“You want your staff to be reflective of the world we live in,” said Dr. Michael Thornton. “We live in a global society that is made up of all types of people, ethnicity, gender. So, as we try to build and develop students for this global society, I think it’s important that they see and interact with diverse populations.

“Of course, reading and writing is reading and writing,” he added. “But in terms of preparing a child to be a global citizen, and also to be ready for the work place, which is diverse, they need to have diverse teachers and leaders to work with those children.”

Addressing the crisis

Multiple studies have shown that minority student performance improved when students were exposed to racially diverse teachers.

So how can school districts address the shortage? How can teacher preparation programs attract more minority students?

Isle of Wight superintendent Dr. Jim Thornton said that he believes the issue boils down to salaries.

“They want to earn a good quality living,” said Dr. Jim Thornton of the rising generation. “I just don’t know if [the shortage] is going to switch without that.”

The state diversity task force dubbed finances as a barrier as well, noting that the length and cost of the traditional teacher prep in Virginia “is disproportionate to salary,” a particular burden for first generation and low-income college students, who are often minorities.

The average teacher in Virginia with a bachelor’s and master’s degree will have accrued $50,879 in debt, according to the report, which advocated more financial incentives and stipends for low-income students in teaching programs.

The task force also advocated that school divisions’ raise awareness of teaching opportunities and training for minority students, as well as step up promotion of the profession.

For its part, Norfolk State University provides programs designed to support teaching students to pass state licensure and assessment tests, according to Littleton. The university strives to provide students with early field experience to help students be more prepared for the workforce, Littleton said.

If the trend does not turn around, schools will be looking at the issue more closely, said Littleton.

“I don’t know how the country would survive without teachers,” she said.

Elsie Marrow

As institutions reckon with a lack of black teachers, some are starting grassroots efforts to address the growing issue.

Aleisha Langhorne, a 1998 graduate of Smithfield High School, began the Elsie Marrow Legacy Foundation earlier this year, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting black students interested in becoming teachers.

The foundation’s namesake was a teacher in Isle of Wight County for 40 years, and a lifelong advocate for educators, according to Langhorne.

“Part of what she always did was encourage young people,” said Langhorne of Marrow, who was a grandmother figure to Langhorne.

Marrow, known by many as “Cousin Elsie,” taught in both segregated and integrated schools during her career from the 1940s to the late 1980s. She died in 2016 at the age of 94.

The foundation started out as simply a donation to Brown’s A.M.E. Church in Smithfield, which was looking to host an “Elsie Marrow Day,” Marrow having been a member there much of her life, according to Langhorne.

But Langhorne and others began looking for more ways to honor Marrow, and researched needs in the community they could possibly address.

An apparent shortage of black teachers in Isle of Wight schools arose as a leading issue as Langhorne spoke with people.

“That kept coming up,” she said of the issue.

After researching the subject, she found it was becoming a national issue as well.

The Elsie Marrow Foundation is currently raising money for scholarships for aspiring teachers, aiming to begin accepting applications next fall.

Langhorne, who works as a Public Health Professional in Maryland, said that she hopes to develop two factions of support with the foundation, by connecting the scholarship recipient with a current teacher and a former teacher.

The former teacher would be a source of encouragement, sending notes, checking in on the student and providing advice. The current teacher would be an avenue that could potentially expose the student to the classroom, Langhorne said.

Langhorne has big goals for expanding the foundation to address other needs as well. Right now, it is focusing on fundraising for the scholarships.

Langhorne, who comes from a large family of educators, said it is one of the most underpaid and underappreciated professions.

“There’s no career, there is no path in life you can go to without an educator,” she said.