About 66 percent of Schenectady’s students are not white, but only a handful of their teachers share their diverse background.
Of the district’s 815 teachers, 96 percent are white. There are only 36 nonwhite teachers among 19 schools.
Most children can go years without encountering a nonwhite teacher, particularly in elementary school.
“Even the foreign language teachers,” said parent Aaron Couture. “It’s funny. We go to athletics and everything else in the community and there’s a variety of diversity. To think the only one [that isn’t diverse] is teachers — the one place they spend the most of their time.”
Couture, who is white, said he and his wife chose to send their sons to Schenectady schools because of the diversity.
“We specifically chose to keep our kids at Schenectady schools so they would be with a very diverse group of kids,” he said. “That’s represented by the students, but not the teachers.”
Schenectady’s low teacher diversity rate is unusual in the state. While many suburban schools have only one or two minority teachers, many large city school districts have much higher rates than Schenectady.
In Rochester, 10 percent of its teachers are not white, according to 2011-12 data tracked by the state Education Department. In Buffalo, the rate is 16 percent. In Syracuse, it’s 9 percent.
Even Albany has far more nonwhite teachers than Schenectady. There, 12 percent of its teachers are minorities.
Last year, Albany employed 82 nonwhite teachers in a district very similar to Schenectady in size, poverty level and financial difficulties. But in Schenectady, there were only 36.
For many years, Schenectady school leaders have said it’s very difficult to find even a few nonwhite teachers to hire. A nonwhite teacher, they said, is recruited by so many districts that a district like Schenectady is hopelessly outmatched.
But new Superintendent Laurence Spring doesn’t believe that is true. He said he will recruit in New York City this summer to try to bring more nonwhite teachers to Schenectady.
It’s about time, some parents and teachers said. Retired teacher Allison Williams said she’s convinced school officials simply aren’t interested in seeking out nonwhite teachers.
“I know for sure,” she said. “In my opinion, it’s not by accident. It’s by design.”
Williams, who is black, moved to Schenectady with 22 years of teaching experience and a master’s degree. Her children were in middle school. For the next decade, she regularly applied to work in Schenectady schools.
The district hired her as a substitute but never chose her for a full-time position.
“I applied to the Schenectady schools so many times they knew my name and told me I did not need to apply again and they were aware of my application,” she said. “If they thought I was a bad teacher, they wouldn’t have put me in those [substitute] positions. Every day I had a sub job.”
She added that her substitute jobs allowed her to work in all of the city’s schools, and she was impressed by many of the teachers.
“Yes, there are a lot of very good white teachers,” she said, stressing she was not suggesting black teachers should be hired solely because of their race.
But, she said, “there’s not a shortage” of good black teachers.
“The only shortage is in Schenectady,” she said.
Spring said it’s possible to hire more nonwhite teachers.
“Yes, I do think that more can be done,” he said, but added, “It is kind of a complex problem. Education is not overly diverse.”
At many teacher-training colleges, he said, there is a “very high percentage” of white faculty.
For some teachers, the real question is why it matters. Why can’t the district simply search for the best teachers, regardless of race?
But parents, both black and white, said students need to see nonwhites in positions of authority and success.
“We know black people can play basketball, but do we know they can be doctors and lawyers and teachers?” Williams asked. “When they see black people in positive situations, they have hope, hope of overcoming poverty, hope of getting that job someday, hope of being that person.”
Spring added he thinks it’s more important to find teachers who grew up poor — white or not.
“Having teachers who understand what it is like to live in poverty is really helpful when you’ve got a bunch of kids living in intense poverty,” he said. “We want staff who can identify with our kids, staff our kids can identity with.”
That builds a bridge between teacher and student.
“It makes it easier to build that trust,” Spring said. “If you look like me, that is one step toward establishing moral authority. If you come from a place like me, that’s another step.”
That’s not to say students won’t obey or trust teachers who come from different social or racial backgrounds.
“Can you develop moral authority without it? Of course you can, but it requires an extra step,” Spring said.
Still, his most important criteria is that any new hire has high expectations for all students.
“If, in doing that, we’re also able to get staff that look like our kids, come from the same background as our kids, that’s hitting the trifecta,” he said.
Couture added he thinks white children can benefit from nonwhite teachers, too. Every teacher tells students their story of success, he said. But for too many of them, the stories sound the same: “Graduated. Went to college,” he said.
He described meeting a Guyanese neighbor who told his children about working as a farmer before immigrating to the United States.
“Put his story in front of a class of students and you would drive inspiration,” he said. “There’s been this wide range of immigration in this area. That’s unique. The school district could help be a cultural center. That would be great.”
He also wants school officials to show his children, through their presence, that people from all backgrounds are valuable individuals.
“So you don’t just see them as ‘avoid at all cost,’ ” he said. “School is the place that happens, I am convinced of that, because they spend so much time there.”
Williams said nonwhite students also need teachers who believe in them.
“We all know expectation is everything in education,” she said, worried some teachers don’t have high expectations for poor, nonwhite students.
Spring disagreed, saying teachers learn to control subconscious biases.
“We tend to have an affinity for those who look like us, but, at best, only half your kids are going to be the same gender as you,” he said. “Everyone has bias. We can recognize it, we can be mindful of it.”