ROCHESTER — At the beginning of each school year, Century High School teacher
organizes an ice-breaker for her class called “Hot Seat.”
The goal is to build a sense of community within the classroom, to get students and teacher to get to know one another. On this day, Benjamin put herself on the hot seat, and students were allowed to ask anything about their teacher.
Where was she born? What were her likes and dislikes? What does she do for fun? How many languages did she speak?
Later, when Benjamin asked whether there were any commonalities between the students and herself, one Somali male student latched on to her upbringing in a different country, Guatemala, and her move to the U.S.
“You’re an immigrant just like me,” the student told Benjamin.
Benjamin recalled being touched by the observation, because “I never thought of that as something that would inspire somebody in my classroom.”
Educators say such connections are invaluable, because they give students a sense of shared experience and personal history with a teacher, that he or she has an ally in the classroom, that they are not alone.
Yet those types of connections are relatively uncommon in Rochester’s public schools when it comes to minority students, because of a decades-long diversity divergence between Rochester Public School’s student body and its teaching staff.
While the district’s student population continues to diversify in terms of race and ethnicity, its teaching staff remains overwhelmingly white.
Approximately 4% of RPS teaching staff are of color, whereas 43.7% of the district’s students are of color.
The question is: Why has the district struggled in this area for so long?
It’s not as if the district hasn’t tried. Over the last couple decades, it has tried to forge relationships with historically Black colleges and universities in the South in the hopes of building a pipeline to Rochester. It has also tried to promote from within, training paraprofessionals to become teachers.
Neither strategy has worked. Teaching staff has remained stuck in the low single digits when it comes to racial and ethnic diversity.
Minority community leaders and educators says RPS’ struggles in expanding the percentage of minority teachers beyond the single digits stem from a variety of factors: A flawed and intermittent recruitment strategy; an unwelcoming community to minorities, both real and perceived; a cold-weather climate and low pay; and reasons both recent and historical, including the decimation of Black teaching ranks during desegregation.
Vangie Castro, a former school board candidate and a member of the Human Right Commission of Olmsted County, said that an aspiring Black teacher who conducts a Google search on Rochester Public Schools would find a number of articles that might give her pause.
First, that teacher would learn that Olmsted County, at 83%, is overwhelmingly white. She would learn about discipline disparities between Blacks and whites in its schools, and a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights into the disparity in 2015. She would read about recent school board meetings filled with community members
objecting to the teaching of critical race theory
and the wearing of masks.
“Those stories don’t feel like, ‘Oh, that’s a community I want to go to,’” Castro said.
Castro said public schools such as Rochester are not alone in attempting to diversify their staff. The corporate world is also competing for minority and Black college graduates, and a teacher’s pay can’t compete.
“Are they going to go into a profession that only pays $35,000 a year? Or are they going to go into an industry that pays them $70,000 a year,” Castro said. “RPD (Rochester Police Department) has a problem with hiring a more diverse staff, and they pay a lot. They pay over $100,000.”
William C. Jordan, vice president of the Rochester chapter of the NAACP, said getting credentials to teach in Minnesota public schools has also presented a challenge for out-of-state teachers. Jordan was working at IBM when he transferred from Charlotte, N.C., to Rochester in the 1990s.
Later, IBM asked him to help recruit Black engineers from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. The school has a history of producing top engineers of color. New IBM recruits who came to Rochester would sometimes come with a spouse who was also a teacher.
“Some of them were already teachers in another state. And they came here, and they had to jump through so many hoops just to be able to teach here,” Jordan said.
Jordan recalled at least one couple leaving Rochester because both husband and wife couldn’t have professional careers in Rochester.
Jordan also points to the legacy of desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s in explaining why many Blacks decide not to pursue teaching. When schools integrated, tens of thousands of highly skilled Black teachers were dismissed or demoted.
Jordan recalled that before desegregation, the Black high school in his North Carolina hometown was led by a Black principal. He had a master’s degree and a long career in education. But, when schools integrated, he ended up losing out to a less experienced white retired military man.
“They think there’s this switch on the wall you can flip, and they’re going to get Black teachers when this whole culture over the years has pushed Black people out of the profession,” Jordan said.
Rochester school officials don’t see a diversified teaching staff as a cure-all. There are other factors, such as high expectations for students, that make for good schools. But they are confident it would help, particularly in narrowing the large performance gap between white and minority students.
Studies have shown that Black students who had a Black teacher in kindergarten were 18 times more likely than their peers to enroll in college, said Rochester Superintendent Kent Pekel. Black students who had a Black teacher in elementary school were far less likely to drop out.
Rochester has been ramping up its efforts to diversify its teaching staff. For one, they have dedicated staff to the task. Directing the effort is Willie Tipton, the district’s equity coordinator for students and human resources, whose main goal is to recruit and retain teachers of color.
Some of the initiatives are new and others not so new. What’s different, Tipton said, is the determination to sustain the effort over the long-haul.
“It has to happen organically,” Tipton said, “and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
He said Rochester is looking to “grow our own” by talking with high school juniors and seniors who are thinking about becoming educators. They are also focused on recruiting from colleges and universities closer to home, including Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The idea of sending recruits to the schools in the South has largely been abandoned.
“The most important piece is going to these colleges and building relationships with these students and letting them know exactly what Rochester has to offer,” Tipton said.
There is recognition among RPS leaders that if the district is going to build a foundation for hiring more minority teachers, it has to be successful in retaining the teachers it already has.
Right now, the 60 or so employees that make up Rochester’s minority teaching staff are scattered across the district. In some cases, there are only one or two teachers of color in a school, a situation that can be isolating.
“If you’re the only one in your building who is from an underrepresented community, and you’re the only one in that specific content area, it’s really hard to find people that are doing similar work,” Benjamin said.
To help support teachers of color and lessen the isolation, the district created an Employees of Color Resource Group four years ago. The goal is to provide opportunities for teachers to connect and collaborate, to share and discuss ways to grow in their professions.
It’s also a support network for teachers who are dealing with “microaggressions or racialized experiences” and “may not find that support among their peers or other people in their buildings,” Benjamin said.
Will Ruffin II, the district’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion, said broad-based support will be key to any strategy to increase the percentage of minority teachers at RPS. In the past, no help was provided to new teachers of color in becoming a part of the community. No attention was paid to helping them with housing or finding a job for a spouse or getting acclimated to the community.
“That’s why some of our efforts in the past failed,” Ruffin said.
“There isn’t a network of people that they can just pop themselves into, so they can start to feel like they’re part of the community,” Ruffin said. “We didn’t do those things. We just said, ‘Hey, why don’t you teach here?’ And that’s not going to work.”
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