Aspiring Educators - Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former teacher, speaks during a 2019 news conference announcing the School District of Philadelphia’s program aimed at cultivating minority teaching careers. — Courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services

More than a third of Pennsylvania’s students are children of color, and just 6% of their educators are teachers of color.

To address that, a group of educators, administrators and education advocates urged districts this week to consider using part of their American Rescue Plan funds to diversify the ranks of teachers.

“The American Rescue Plan for Education offers an incredible opportunity for schools and districts to invest in education diversity efforts, as school leaders can use these funds to recruit and hire educators of color and mentor students of color as they consider becoming educators,” said Tanya Garcia, Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Higher Education. “The Pennsylvania Department of Education is working with educators and partners across the commonwealth to support this work and the development of competencies needed to provide culturally relevant and sustaining instruction.”

This is a critical time because the number of minority students is growing faster than the number of minority teachers in our state.

Research shows that students behave better, learn more and are more likely to stay in school and go to college when they have teachers they can identify with. All students of color need such role models, and they need teachers who understand their background.

Aaron Walton, president of Cheyney University, the nation’s first historically Black university, suggested school communities put more funds towards partnership programs between institutions of higher education and school districts.

Cheyney stepped up with its “Aspire to Educate” program last summer, a five-week summer program for high school students to learn about careers in education.

Twenty-one students participated in the program in 2020, according to Walton, and 19 of them chose to matriculate and continue their education at the Delaware County university.

Walton advocated for districts across the state to use their federal stimulus money because programs like this require “additional resources and funding to enable institutions like Cheyney University to host and sustain them ... the American Relief Plan dollars give us another opportunity to collaborate and invest in teacher diversity.”

Research shows the benefits of diversity among the teaching ranks. Having at least one Black teacher early on reduces a Black student’s likelihood of dropping out and increases Black students’ likelihood of going to college.

Yet — across Pennsylvania, 1,500 schools and 184 school systems do not employ a single teacher of color.

Teacher diversity matters in every school system.All students benefit from increased teacher diversity,” said Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former teacher said. “They are better prepared to participate as informed and engaged citizens in an inclusive national civic culture and increasingly complex world.”

We must recognize that student outcomes have to do with more than standardized test scores. If children have a teacher or two they can identify with, that can make a true difference in their lives. It can be the difference between life and death, when every student feels included and able to succeed.

The School District of Philadelphia is also making plans to use American Rescue Plan funds to reinvest in its leader residency program that addresses teacher diversity, according to Larisa Shambaugh, Chief Talent Officer for the School District of Philadelphia.

The goal, said Shambaugh, “is to provide those who already work with our students and who are already committed to our community with a clear pathway to becoming a teacher.”

“We know that there is much more that we must do to have our educator demographics better reflect our student demographics,” said Shambaugh.

We agree with the many educators and administrators who came together this week that much more needs to be done so that teacher demographics reflect student demographics in order to promote better outcomes in every community — but especially communities of color.

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