Hilderbrand Pelzer III, the principal at Laura H. Carnell School in the lower Northeast, did with Travien Bryson what he always does with Black male substitute teachers — he honed in.
To someone like Pelzer, a career educator, Bryson is a diamond waiting to be molded. Going into his seventh year at Carnell, Pelzer had just one Black male teacher on his staff of 60 last year and he won’t return this fall.
“I’m always keeping an eye open for Black men, encouraging them to give the profession a try,” Pelzer said. “You try to give all teachers the support they need, but you particularly want to make sure that Black men have the support they need because you don’t want to lose them.”
His work has paid off. Coupled with Bryson’s desire to make a difference and Pelzer’s persistence, the 43-year-old Bryson, who has worked most recently in truancy and as the assistant musical director at the Philadelphia Clef Club, will begin his new career at Carnell this fall as a fifth-grade teacher.
“I’m going to take the plunge at last,” said Bryson, who has been certified to teach for 15 years. “Something just hit me and I said, ‘I need to do this.’ I didn’t feel like I was a change agent in truancy. Going in and out of schools, I noticed that I saw very few people who looked like me.
“Mr. Pelzer talked with me often; he showed a lot of interest in me,” Bryson continued. “I feel this is where I need to be right now.”
Nationwide, just 2 percent of public school teachers are African-American men, while students of color make up about half the nation’s public school enrollment from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
As recently as 2013, just 59 percent of Black males graduated from high school on time, compared with 65 percent of Latino males and 80 percent of white males, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education.
Local Black educators concerned with the paucity of Black male teachers and the impact that shortage has on the academic performance of African-American boys in the classroom took notice recently when the University of Illinois at Chicago announced plans to invest about $1 million in an initiative to recruit and train male elementary education majors of color in the same fashion that universities recruit student athletes.
There are currently no local universities making this type of financial investment in such an initiative.
However, the district does have an ongoing recruitment campaign involving 28 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. They also partner with the Fellowship: Black Male Educators for Social Justice in finding and retaining African-American male teachers.
At Bethune Elementary, an intentional approach has worked. There, 13 of the 45 teachers are African-American men.
“Last year, we made a conscious effort to increase the number of Black male educators in our building. We didn’t shy away from other qualified candidates but we were focused in our recruitment efforts to find qualified Black male educators who believe in the vision that we have for our school,” Principal Jamina Dingle said. “I’ve always felt that it just makes sense for the teaching staff of a school to be reflective of the students that are being taught.”
Last year, a joint study by American University, the University of California-Davis and Johns Hopkins looking at the long-term records for more than 100,00 Black elementary school students in North Carolina found that having just one African-American teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced low-income boys’ probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent.
And by high school, both male and female African-American students who had one African-American teacher had much stronger expectations of going to college.
What is important to note is this effect was observed seven to 10 years after the experience of having just one Black teacher.
“There is all sorts of research supporting this,” said Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan. “It is important because so many youngsters may not have a father figure at home. They look up to the guidance a Black male role model can provide.”
The School District of Philadelphia is doing a better job of hiring African-American male teachers than the national average, with the number around 4 percent. However, there are many roadblocks to be cleared.
To begin, the starting public school teacher salary here is $45,000. Many teachers have student loan debt and families, so that salary is not particularly attractive.
Pennsylvania teachers must also earn additional credits (26) to stay certified. After six years, if they fail to achieve these credits, they can be terminated.
“It can be quite difficult at times,” Jordan said.
None of this has deterred Bryson, whose wife, Eilisha, is a second-grade teacher at William M. Meredith School in Queen Village.
“I’m very happy to be able to impact kids’ lives on this level,” Bryson said. “I feel obligated to make an impact on their lives when they leave my presence. I’m very excited.”