Damien Ford knows the look he gets from black parents dropping off their kids at his downtown Baltimore school. It’s one that says, “Take care of my baby.”
Ford says his skin color means his job comes with extra pressures and expectations. Black students often look to him to be a father figure; white teachers often look to him to be a disciplinarian.
“When you're that lone or one of very few black men in the school building, there’s a lot that comes with that,” said Ford, a veteran teacher who now works as an educational associate at Baltimore School for the Arts.
In a district where African-American children made up roughly 80 percent of the student body last year, only about 40 percent of its roughly 4,900 teachers were black.
District officials say something must change, for the sake of Baltimore’s future.
The city has for years struggled to recruit and retain a teaching force that reflects the children it serves. The challenge persists even as research emerges showing that a black person’s presence at the front of a classroom has the power to dramatically improve a student’s trajectory.
The school system is now convening a work group aimed at understanding the causes of this disparity and recommending solutions. Teachers, system officials and community organizers met publicly twice over the summer, and the district will work toward drafting recommendations throughout the school year, which starts Tuesday.
“We are doing this because we know it’s important for our students to have teachers who look like them,” said Jeremy Grant-Skinner, the district’s chief of human capital.
The problem is far from unique to Baltimore. Nationwide, about 7 percent of public school teachers are black.
Across Central Maryland, the numbers are similarly bleak: In Carroll County, 1 percent of teachers are African-American. In Harford County, 3.7 percent are. About 7 percent of Anne Arundel teachers are black, and about 10 percent of Howard County teachers are. Even in Baltimore County, where the black student population sits at about 40 percent, just one in 10 teachers are black.
Still, the disparity stands out in an urban, majority-black district like Baltimore City. Here, the gap between the percentage of black teachers and black students is the widest in the region. It used to be narrower: In the early 2000s, more than 60 percent of Baltimore teachers were black.
Baltimore’s struggle to hire black teachers is fueled by a statewide shortage of minority teaching candidates. And retention is difficult, too, with many black teachers saying they are saddled with extra pressures. The problem traces back decades and is in some ways an unintended legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, which launched schools on a still-unfinished road toward integration. When black students started attending formerly all-white schools, their black teachers rarely came with them.
Grant-Skinner said he can’t pinpoint one reason for the decline since 2003 — but the district isn’t fixating on that.
“We want to really focus on where we are today,” he said.
To bolster the pipeline, officials know there’s a need to overcome perceptions that teachers are afflicted by low pay and bad working conditions. They say there’s a need to remove barriers to teacher certification for people who are passionate about education but struggle on required tests. And there’s a need to persuade students to picture themselves as a teacher when, for so long, they’ve mostly seen white faces at the front of classrooms.
“If I go through 12 years of schools without a black teacher, I’m going to believe that black people don’t teach,” said Austin Hill, a former Baltimore educator who now teaches in Harford County.
The benefits of having a black teacher are clear, students say and research echoes.
Jonothan Gray, a 16-year-old Bard High School Early College student, recalls an incident two years ago when a police officer approached him and his friends at a bus stop and accused them of loitering. Gray remembers the officer cursing and putting his hand on his gun.
The day after the confrontation, Gray told his eighth-grade teacher what happened. The teacher immediately drove him to a police station to report the incident.
“It was important to him not just because he was our teacher, but because he was a black man in Baltimore,” Gray said. “And we felt comfortable going to him because he was that role model for us.”
Diamonte Brown, a native of Baltimore and a graduate of its schools, spent two years teaching at Renaissance Academy. The school has recently lost several students to the city’s rampant violence.
“Sometimes I have to tell my students they have to put their victimization to the side in order to be successful,” said Brown, who now teaches at Booker T. Washington. “That’s a conversation that only someone who has lived your same experience can have with you.”
Jocelyn Providence was the only black teacher in Digital Harbor High School’s math department for years. Some students will come to her to help, even if they aren’t in her class.
When she asks why they’re coming to her instead of their own teacher, the students often respond by saying the others “don’t get it.”
The dynamics of race also play a role in the coursework. During his freshman year at Baltimore City College, Joshua Lynn had only white teachers. Sitting in his English class, he says he wondered what it would’ve been like to have a black person leading class discussions on “Purple Hibiscus,” a novel about a teenage girl growing up in an abusive home in postcolonial Nigeria.
Brown loves teaching her students “A Raisin in the Sun,” a novel about an African-American family living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1950s. She feels she can really “go there” with her students.
“I’m talking to kids about, ‘Why do you want to have track? Why do you want to have European hair? What is this about? Why don’t you want to rock your real hair?’ ” she said. “You can’t have that conversation for real if you’re a white teacher.”
Research shows a black teacher’s presence can transform a child’s life, with all students benefiting from a more diverse teaching force.
Low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are significantly more likely to graduate high school and consider attending college, according to a 2017 study co-authored by a Johns Hopkins economist. Black teachers are also more likely than white teachers to expect a black student to graduate, studies found, and to identify black students as “gifted.”
The deep relationships built with students — both real or perceived — can be a burden for black teachers in Baltimore. Some describe being tapped by white teachers if they’re having a problem with an African-American student in their class.
“They come to you and think you're a catch-all black expert,” Hill said. “You have to be the black kid whisperer.”
That pressure can lead to burnout, Hill said. He left teaching for the insurance world after just two years, though he’s since returned.
Davis Dixon, a research associate at The Education Trust, which advocates for students of color and those from low-income families, called this an “invisible tax.”
“Teachers of color get pigeonholed into a role that ends up placing an extra burden on what they do in the school,” he said.
At a recent meeting of the city school district’s work group, teachers called for stronger mentoring and better professional development. Black teachers in difficult work environments need to feel valued if the school system doesn’t want to lose them, some said.
“If we value teachers, if we value black teachers, then let’s follow through on that and really support them,” said Rebecca Yenawine, of the Teachers’ Democracy Project, a city schools advocacy group.
The top reason minority teachers leave? Dissatisfaction, according to a study from the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute. Among the reasons they cite are poor workplace conditions, the way school assessments affect teaching and disagreements with administration.
“It’s a climate,” said schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “They’re not leaving because of the kids.”
Hampering efforts to hire more black teachers in the first place is the shortage of educators — of all races — in every Maryland school district.
Just 542 minority candidates graduated from approved educator certification programs in 2015, according to the state education department’s latest teaching staff report. While that number is up from previous years, it doesn’t come close to meeting the need.
“We could hire every one and not fill all the positions we have every year,” Grant-Skinner said.
Enrollment in education programs dropped by roughly 14 percent across the University System of Maryland from 2010 to last year.
Baltimore is increasingly seeing alternative preparation programs as a source of hiring diverse educators.
One is Teach for America, which recruits college graduates who make an initial two-year commitment to teach in high-need public schools across the country. It’s long been regarded as a pipeline for mostly white teachers to teach in largely minority, low-income schools.
Baltimore Teach for America director Courtney Cass acknowledges the program’s history but said recruiting a diverse group is a key priority. Since 2014, people of color have constituted more than half their corps. The group has been, on average, 30 percent black over the past five years.
But some, like Baltimore Teachers Union president Marietta English, still feel like teachers from programs like Teach for America — who are more likely to be from out of town and white — are favored over traditional candidates.
Research shows roadblocks put African-Americans at a disadvantage at nearly every stage of the path to becoming a teacher — from evidence of hiring discrimination to a certification test that favors white people.
A person must pass a Praxis exam to become a Maryland teacher. An analysis by the Education Testing Service found black candidates are much more likely than white candidates to fail the Praxis, which evaluates future teachers’ general content knowledge.
Offering free Praxis tutoring might be one way to help the district close the gap, some teachers have recommended. Others say Baltimore should provide financial incentives to encourage city graduates to come back and teach.
Ford, from the Baltimore School for the Arts, said persuading just one more black person to teach in the city could have ripple effects.
He still remembers the first black male teacher he ever had: Mr. Bragg.
Mr. Bragg was a towering presence who seemed effortlessly comfortable as he navigated the school. He told his seventh-grade science students he was teaching them out of college physics textbooks, and Ford has no reason to doubt that was true.
“The way he interacted with us, the high expectations he had,” Ford says, “that’s one of the reasons I’m an educator today.”