Damien Ford, a veteran teacher who works as an educational associate at the Baltimore School for the Arts, talks about the value for African-American students to have African-American teachers as role models.(Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)
After Freddie Gray’s funeral, Gregory Haskins watched as fire and looting threatened to engulf his city. The 2015 unrest 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 suddenly one less black man stood 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 presented them June 18 at the district’s North Avenue headquarters.
“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.
I needed a mentor when I was there.
Gregory Haskins, former Baltimore City teacher
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The dearth of black educators is a problem across the country and Maryland. 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 what it called the “invisible tax” with which African American educators must grapple. Black teachers often are given 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.
The Baltimore school system’s chief human capital officer, Jeremy Grant-Skinner, who is 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.
In a district where African-American children made up roughly 80 percent of the student body last year, only about 40 percent of the system’s roughly 4,900 teachers were black. District officials say something must change, for the sake of Baltimore’s future.
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. Those people already have shown commitment to the district and established relationships with kids.
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 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 likely can 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.
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.