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No Easy Answer: Few Minority Teachers In Lackawana County

December 3, 2018

As a substitute teacher in a Scranton classroom, Robert McLeod looked over lesson plans before students arrived.

“Can I help you?” a teacher asked him, as she stood in the doorway.

He explained he was at the school to fill in for the absent teacher.

“I thought you were a janitor,” the woman replied.

Nearly a decade later, McLeod is one of two black teachers in the Scranton School District — and the only black male public school teacher in Lackawanna County. While more than half of Scranton’s 10,000 students are a race other than white, only four of Scranton’s 714 teachers identify the same way. In the county, only five of 2,037 teachers — or 0.2 percent — are not white, according to 2017-18 state data.

Nationally, 18 percent of teachers are minorities. In Pennsylvania, the figure is just 4 percent, compared with 29 percent of the state’s public school enrollment, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

As the state looks to increase the diversity of the people standing in front of classrooms, McLeod has asked the Scranton School District to form a committee and develop an action plan to address the complex issue. Studies show students can benefit from learning from people with diverse backgrounds — teachers who look like the students and share the same culture or traditions. Superintendents say minorities do not apply for teaching jobs in Northeast Pennsylvania.

“I’m not here to just be a good teacher,” McLeod said. “I’m here to be a good black teacher for black students, and a good black teacher for white students. ... All kids need to see black teachers.”

Diverse benefits

Research suggests that educator diversity can play an important part in closing achievement gaps, improving school climate and promoting higher expectations for minority students. A 2017 study by a Johns Hopkins University researcher found that having at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades reduced a black student’s probability of dropping out of school by 29 percent. For low-income black boys, the results are even greater. Their chance of dropping out fell 39 percent.

Local education leaders say diverse teaching staffs would benefit area students, but the districts cannot find the applicants.

Experts call the problem a “job pipeline” issue, as the state loses potential teachers from diverse backgrounds at each stage of the pipeline, starting with lower high school graduation rates for black and Hispanic students. For example, at Scranton High School, 81.6 percent of white students graduate within four years, compared to 75 percent of black students and 68.2 percent of Hispanic students.

Minority students who go to college graduate at a lower rate than white students. The successful black and Hispanic students who earn college degrees often don’t choose public education as their career, explained Eduardo Antonetti, supervisor of curriculum and instruction at Mid Valley, who came to the United States from Puerto Rico to attend college. Although Mid Valley does not have any minority teachers, another administrator, elementary center Principal Carlos Lopez, is also from Puerto Rico.

“Many minority students report that when all their teachers are white, they associate teaching as being a white career,” Antonetti said. “It’s harder for them to see themselves in that position.”

If the goal is to increase the number of minority teachers, schools must first work to increase achievement of minority students from a young age. The achievement gap — disparity in academic performance between groups of students — must decrease and graduation rates must rise, said Antonetti, a member of the board of the Pennsylvania Principals Association who has researched diversity issues.

“We have to make sure they’re first successful here in our schools,” he said. “If you talk to many teachers, they chose education because they did well in school. They liked school.”

Making an impact

McLeod, 46, teaches seventh-grade math at Northeast Intermediate School. A native of New Jersey, he decided to become a teacher to make an impact and break the society’s stereotype of the typical black man, he said.

When he taught in Wilkes-Barre 20 years ago, he was the only black male teacher. After 10 years in Wilkes-Barre, he taught in the Washington, D.C., area, where he experienced great diversity. Then he felt a calling to come back to the region.

“I came to Scranton with a purpose,” he said. “I knew Scranton didn’t have any black male teachers.”

In his classroom, he finds students often surprised to learn he’s the teacher. For most, McLeod is the only teacher they’ve had who is a race other than white.

Nearly half of the state’s minority teachers — 2,375 — work in Philadelphia. With 29 percent of students in Pennsylvania nonwhite and only 4 percent of teachers identifying the same way, the state has one of the highest “disproportionality rates” in the country — or the percentage of students of color divided by the percent of teachers of color, according to the report “Patching the Leaky Pipeline: Recruiting Teachers of Color in Pennsylvania” by Philadelphia-based education organization Research for Action.

In the state’s official plan to meet requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, the Pennsylvania Department of Education makes creating a more diverse workforce a priority.

“Given the current reality in the supply of new and diverse educators in Pennsylvania, it is vital for PDE to develop and promote teacher preparation pipelines that ensure that the most talented and diverse students enter the teaching profession,” the report states. “While recruitment is an essential first step, retention, support and development of educators are equally important strategies for meeting the educational needs of all students.”

Since 1996, the enrollment of black students in Pennsylvania postsecondary education majors has decreased by 60 percent, according to the department of education. In 2014, there were only 29 black male graduates in Pennsylvania and 20 Hispanic male graduates — out of a total of 8,552 graduates of teacher preparation programs.

“These declines create significant challenges for schools trying to diversify their staffs,” the report states.

Widespread issue

The lack of diversity extends far outside Scranton.

At Riverside, in which a quarter of the students are a race other than white, there are no minority teachers.

“We’d love to hire someone who would be a role model to some of the students walking through our hallways from different backgrounds, but we have not had the applications coming our way,” Superintendent Paul Brennan said. “Being from a different background goes a long way when our students have someone who looks like them and speaks like them.”

At Abington Heights, 11.7 percent of students are minorities. All teachers in the suburban district are classified as white.

“It’s a very serious and important issue,” said Superintendent Michael Mahon, Ph.D. “We certainly recognize that diversity in all respects, and in our teaching, is an important part of education.”

The student population of Abington Heights has become more diverse, but the district has not been able to attract any diverse teachers, even when the district has advertised to a wider audience and attended career fairs where more minorities were represented, Mahon said.

“It’s a matter of very strong importance,” he said. “It’s not easily solved.”

Surrounding counties have the following number of minority teachers — or those who identify as American Indian/Alaskan Native, black/African American, Hispanic, multiracial, Asian or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander:

• Luzerne County, 18

• Monroe County, 62

• Pike County, six

• Susquehanna County, nine

• Wayne County, one

• Wyoming County, two

Possible solutions

The push for diversifying teacher staffs comes at the same time that enrollment in teacher preparation programs is down statewide. From 2009 to 2015, statewide enrollment in postsecondary teacher programs decreased by 63 percent, according to the “Patching the Leaky Pipeline” report.

Many of the efforts to increase enrollment could also be targeted at minority populations.

The department of education has proposed implementing a “K‐12 Educator Pipeline,” which would be a teacher recruitment initiative to encourage high school students to consider becoming teachers. The state has also proposed a paraprofessional pathway program, which would tap into a more diverse pool of potential teachers already working in schools.

The state could also model several efforts nationwide. The Boston public school system uses a program that provides high school juniors with mentors and other assistance in becoming teachers, and most participants were black or Hispanic, according to the “Patching the Leaky Pipeline” report. Other states have started scholarship programs.

East Stroudsburg University, the closest state university to Scranton, has worked on increasing all enrollment, including minority enrollment, in education programs. A new bridge program with East Stroudsburg High School allows select juniors and seniors to take education courses at a far-reduced tuition rate and to become members of a future teachers club. If the pilot program is successful, the university plans to expand it to other high schools.

“We all saw it as a way to encourage minorities in the pipeline into teaching,” said Terry Barry, Ed.D., dean of the college of education. “It’s really something we need to be deliberate with. ... Everyone in education recognizes this is a need and certainly deserving of our time.”

Taking control

Some research suggests marketing the teaching profession to people looking for a new career.

Simon “Jake” Williams worked as an insurance claim adjuster and an agent before finding his true passion 15 years ago. The principal of Frances Willard Elementary School in West Scranton is a member of the black community who has served on the Greater Scranton MLK Commission.

For a doctoral class, he wrote an action plan on how to hire more minorities.

Although Scranton continues to become more diverse, “the face of the teaching staff remains status quo,” he said. “A lot of people don’t see it as being broken or in need of repair or improvement. It’s hard to combat that, if you don’t know there’s a problem.”

Scranton Superintendent Alexis Kirijan, Ed.D., said the district would love to hire more minority teachers, but they do not apply.

“It helps the students to relate more to the adults around them, and each diverse group brings a unique richness with them that can be shared across the school district,” Kirijan said.

The district should increase its career preparation and encourage more students to enter the field of education, said Kirijan, who previously worked in the diversity-rich Atlanta public school system.

During a recent school board meeting, directors discussed recruiting applicants from colleges in larger urban areas and visiting job fairs, though the district may not have the staff or funding for such an undertaking. Other districts have increased diversity through teacher residency programs, where a “teaching resident” would temporarily live and study within the district, or through a visiting international teacher program, in which teachers from around the world would teach students, Kirijan said.

In Scranton, McLeod hopes to start coming up with solutions so he is no longer the only black man to teach in Lackawanna County.

“We can’t control what we can’t control,” McLeod said. “Let’s focus on what we can control. We can control our effort. Why can’t Scranton be a pioneer for this?”

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Contact the writer:

shofius@timesshamrock.com;

570-348-9133;

@hofiushallTT on Twitter

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