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Council probes Hub schools’ lagging black teacher hires

Dan Devine

With the start of the school year fast approaching, Boston Public Schools (BPS) officials appeared at a City Council hearing last Thursday to discuss the district’s struggle to comply with a federal mandate aimed at increasing diversity in the hiring of public school teachers.

The district court order — issued by Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. as part of his 1974 ruling in Boston’s landmark school desegregation case — calls for at least one-quarter of the city’s teaching staff to be comprised of black educators. It also requires at least 10 percent of the staff to be made up of teachers from other ethnic and minority groups.

While the proportion of Latino and Asian teachers has risen to 15 percent, the share of black teachers dropped to 23 percent two years ago and has remained at that level. William Horwath, assistant superintendent of human resources for the BPS, said that black teachers made up 23.6 percent of the district’s teachers in the 2008-2009 school year. Pending some new hires into the system, the figure will likely be closer to 23.75 percent by the time schools open on Sept. 10, he said.

City Councilor Chuck Turner called for the hearing to explore not only what the BPS is doing to ensure federal compliance, but also what steps can be taken to achieve a greater level of diversity in city classrooms.

“I think the issue is very clear in terms of the need to work together so that we don’t just meet the minimums, but that we create an increasing flow of teachers of color — black, Latino, Asian, Cape Verdean — into the Boston Public Schools system,” he said.

BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson called minority hiring “an area of concern that we’ll continue to work on.” The superintendent last week also announced she would shelve a controversial school assignment plan aimed at reducing transportation costs. Some critics argued the proposal could reopen the door to segregated education by eliminating the opportunity for low-income and minority students to attend schools in more affluent areas.

During his presentation, Horwath listed steps the BPS is taking to bring in more minority teachers, ranging from recruitment visits to historically black colleges and universities to pre-screening minority educators in urban areas like New York and Washington, D.C.

“There’s no question we can do more on the recruitment side,” Horwath said.

In her testimony, Suzanne Lee argued that focusing such attention outside Greater Boston is fruitless.

“I’ve seen over the years, and I believe, the best teachers are the ones that we can grow here,” said Lee, who recently retired as the principal of the Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown after 35 years in the BPS system. “Because if I recruit teachers from outside, [I] have to go through a whole layer of orientation to [help them] understand what we’re trying to do.”

In fact, Lee said, she thinks she only accepted one such cherry-picked educator over the years.

“They’re just not compatible with what we’re trying to do here,” she said. “So that’s a lot of energy and a lot of time wasted.”

The city has also turned attention to retaining minority teachers already in the system. One key issue in that process is licensure.

According to Horwath, 34 percent of new black teachers, and 20 percent of all new teachers, in the BPS system were not brought back for the coming school year because either they had not passed the state-administered Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure (MTEL) exam or they did not receive a waiver of the licensure requirement. About two-thirds of participants in BPS-offered prep classes for the tests are teachers of color.

Nora Toney, president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, stressed the importance of looking harder at why qualified black teachers leave Boston.

“If we’re losing these new teachers, we need to examine why, and what kind of supports they’d need, especially if they’re effective teachers,” said Toney, principal of the Ellison/Parks Early Education School in Mattapan.

Toward that end, Horwath said, the BPS has begun conducting exit interviews with teachers of color leaving the district. The surveys have revealed some common threads.

“They felt, in many cases, isolated,” he said. “They didn’t have new teachers of color in their schools that they could talk to, relate to.”

Jessica Tang, co-chair of the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association, echoed that sentiment.

“To be a teacher of color in a lot of these schools can be really alienating,” said Tang, who also took the BPS to task for insufficient focus on inclusion across the board.

“It’s not only about the retention and recruitment of teachers of color — the district has to do more to also increase the amount of cultural diversity within the curriculum,” she said.

The lack of diverse perspectives harms students most of all, said John Mudd, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

“The diversity of our teaching staff is a critically important way to bring understanding and valuing of the different cultures of the BPS students, and is an absolutely key component in our efforts to reduce and hopefully eliminate the achievement gap,” he said.

It’s also the key to the system laying Boston’s segregated history to rest, noted Barbara Fields, former head of the district’s Office of Equity.

“To move beyond some of the tragic past that we’ve had, it’s critical for [students] to know that everyone can attain,” she said.