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Who’s teaching our kids? Examining the teacher-student race gap in the Capital Region

Who’s teaching our kids? Examining the teacher-student race gap in the Capital Region

Thirty percent of Capital Region pupils are students of color: Less than 3 percent of the educators are teachers of color
Who’s teaching our kids? Examining the teacher-student race gap in the Capital Region
Schenectady School District teacher orientation was held at Key Hall on August 26, 2019.
Photographer: Marc Schultz/Gazette Photographer

EDITOR’S NOTE: With students heading back to school this week we took a look at who is teaching our youngsters, and some important patterns emerged. Today we look at the increasing focus on teacher diversity — and the wide gap between student and teacher diversity. On Monday, we'll examine who is leading schools and districts, and how differently education jobs are paid.

Twenty-three-year-old Emoni Raysor will start her teaching career this school year in the same place she was first inspired to teach: fourth grade at Hamilton Elementary School in Schenectady.

Her presence alone may serve as a model for many students.

“I knew I wanted to come back here, because I didn’t have teachers who looked like me, or not even just looked like me, but who came from Schenectady,” Raysor said last week at the start of Schenectady’s orientation for new teachers. Raysor will be working as a co-teacher at Hamilton, pushing into classes to work with students struggling with reading. 

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hamilton Elementary first year teacher Emoni Raysor, talks about teacher diversification during an interview in her classroom.MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Hamilton Elementary first year teacher Emoni Raysor, talks about teacher diversification during an interview in her classroom.

Raysor, who worked as a long-term sub at Hamilton for part of last year after earning her bachelor's degree from SUNY Brockport, said she expects to connect with black students on a level many of the school's other teachers simply cannot.

“Just looking at each other, we know we see the world a little different than someone else,” said Raysor, who will be living with her parents, a few blocks from school, until she can find her own place in the city. “I get it. I see your struggles, and we can work through it.”

Mayur Patel, who graduated from Broadalbin-Perth High School in Fulton County in 2012 and taught as an intern in Burnt Hills last year, will start his first full year of teaching in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk school district this year, where he has four separate business courses on his docket. Patel, whose parents immigrated to the area from India, said it's hard to prepare students for the diversity of the world if they don’t encounter any diversity in the classroom. 

Also see: Schenectady focuses on diversifying staff

“Every school talks about how we aren’t just preparing citizens, we are preparing global citizens,” Patel said. “The real world has different people, people of different races, people of different faiths. Unfortunately, a lot of students don’t have that exposure.”

Dylon Peertamsingh immigrated to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago when he was 12 years old. “It was a culture shock,” he said of the experience he now shares with his students in class. While working as a teacher resident, a long-term student teaching model, at Oneida Middle School in Schenectady last year, Peertamsingh would talk with Guyanese students in the dialect similar to what he spoke growing up in nearby Trinidad. Some of the parents even brought him homemade Guyanese food.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
First year teacher in the Albany School District, Dylon Peertamsingh in front of Oneida Middle School where he student taught.MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
First-year teacher in the Albany School District, Dylon Peertamsingh in front of Oneida Middle School where he student taught.

“When I share that story with students, they feel the connection, they talk about the food,” Peertamsingh said. “ ‘I never had a teacher who is from where I am from,’ they say.” 

The three young teachers will come to school with the same education, background and certification expected of all teachers. But they also bring with them a less common trait among the region’s teachers, something that connects them to a sizable group of students in classrooms across the region: their experiences as people of color.

“There are a lot of teachers who don’t look like their students,” Peertamsingh, who will be teaching in an Albany middle school this year, said in an August interview. “That’s a problem.”

As students return to school this week, the Capital Region’s overall student population continues to become increasingly diverse. But the teachers educating those students remain overwhelmingly white.

Far from reflecting student body

Nearly 30 percent of the region’s students in the 2016-2017 school year were students of color, but less than 3 percent of the region’s teachers that year were teachers of color, according to the latest data available from the state Education Department. 

That gap may continue to grow as student enrollments diversify more quickly than districts are hiring teachers of color. Between the 2000-2001 and 2016-2017 school years, the share of students of color in Capital Region schools doubled, rising from 13.8 percent to 27.8 percent; meanwhile, the share of the region’s teachers of color grew from just 1.6 percent to 2.8 percent.

The teacher-student race gap in the Capital Region also appears wider than the same gap that persists across the state — and country. Statewide, black and Latino students accounted for 43 percent of all students in the 2015-2016 school year and 16 percent of teachers were black or Latino, according to a report by The Education Trust-New York, which studies and advocates for educational equity.

Across the country, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 51 percent of students in the 2015-2016 school year, while teachers of color made up about 20 percent of the educator workforce, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Many area districts, including some with hundreds of students of color, for years have put only white teachers in front of classrooms. Almost two dozen districts across the Capital Region in the 2016-2017 school year employed only white teachers, according to the state data. Nearly 2,500 students of color across the region that year went to school in a district that did not employ a single teacher of color.

(For this report, data was analyzed from all school districts in seven counties surrounding the state capital: Albany, Schenectady, Saratoga, Rensselaer, Fulton, Montgomery and Schoharie counties.)

Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, for example, did not report employing a single teacher of color between the 2000-2001 school year and the 2016-2017 school year. For each of those 17 school years, only white teachers worked in Burnt Hills schools — even though in the 2016-2017 school year, nearly 200 students of color enrolled in the district — according to the data.

Burnt Hills Superintendent Patrick McGrath last week said in recent years district leaders have recognized the need to hire diverse educators; John Blowers, the district’s school board president, cited it as a priority when the board extended McGrath’s contract last year. McGrath said the district had hired teachers of color for the most recent school years and is looking to hire more.

“We want our kids to have a world-class education, prepared for the world around them,” he said. “Well, the world around them is diverse.”  

Johnstown, Sharon Springs and Waterford-Halfmoon school districts likewise reported employing only white teachers over those 17 school years.

Even districts with at least some teachers of color are still far from representing their students.

Scotia-Glenville enrolled over 80 black students during the 2016-2017 school year but employed no black teachers. Neither did Ballston Spa, with over 100 black students. Neither did Saratoga Springs, with 120 black students, and neither did Niskayuna, with 172 black students, according to the SED data. 

In Amsterdam schools, Hispanic students became the plurality of the student population in the 2016-2017 school year with over 1,700 students; the district had six Hispanic teachers that year. 

District leaders talk about striving to create a teacher workforce that better reflects or mirrors the students they serve. Districts serving the largest number of students of color in the region remain far from those goals.

Albany and Schenectady city school districts serve the most students of color in the region and employ the most teachers of color as well. In the 2016-2017 school year, according to the state data, 13.5 percent of Albany teachers were teachers of color, while 6.3 percent of Schenectady teachers were teachers of color. About 20 percent of Schenectady's newly hired teachers this year and last year were teachers of color, bringing the district's share of teachers of color to nearly 10 percent, according to data provided by Schenectady district officials. 

But districts like Shenendehowa, Guilderland, North Colonie, South Colonie and Niskayuna, all of which enrolled over 1,000 students of color in the 2016-2017 school year, remain even further from having teachers that reflect their students. Shenedehowa — with over 2,100 students of color and eight teachers of color in the 2016-2017 school year — had 274 students of color per each teacher of color, the highest such ratio in the region. Guilderland had 239 students of color for each teacher of color in the district. Niskayuna enrolled over 1,100 students of color that year and employed seven teachers of color: 168 students of color for each teacher of color. By comparison, in Niskayuna there were nine white students per each white teacher. 

School districts around the region, though, are hoping those numbers begin to change, setting out to diversify their staff to better reflect their students and expose their kids to the diversity they will encounter throughout their lives.

“Everyone is trying to match the teaching force with students in the classroom,” said Catherine Snyder, head of the Clarkson University graduate education program based in Schenectady, where Patel and Peertamsingh, who worked at Burnt Hills and Schenectady, respectively, last year, both recently earned degrees. “It’s the right thing to do, and I think everyone is working on that.”

Districts are ramping up efforts to expand where they search for job candidates and communicating to area teacher preparation programs their desire to hire more teachers of color. But those colleges aren’t necessarily moving prospective teachers of color through education programs and into the field at the rates needed to keep up with, let alone catch up to, student diversity.

Also see: Schenectady focuses on diversifying staff

“It is a pipeline issue,” Snyder said. “The districts are trying to hire teacher candidates from historically underrepresented groups, but there are so few candidates.”

In 2016, statewide about two-thirds of students completing either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in education were white. And the vast majority of minorities graduating with the education degrees were focused in a handful of programs in New York City and on Long Island, according to an Education Trust-New York study. The report also found that most of those graduates stayed in the region they completed their degree to teach. At the University of Albany, 83 percent of education master’s degree recipients were white in 2016; 21 people of color and 17 international students earned education degrees from UAlbany that year, according to the report. 

“The prospective educators who are in the educator preparation pipeline do not reflect the rich diversity of the state’s students,” said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York.

The Education Trust report concludes with calls to regularly release more data about enrollment and completion diversity at the state’s teacher preparation programs at private and public colleges and universities. The group also supports state investment in programs that support people of color to pursue education degrees, and programs that help paraprofessionals and other school staff to earn teaching credentials.

'If that person can do it, so can I'

Growing academic literature demonstrates the importance of providing students with diverse educators. In November, a new study from a team of researchers across the country found that black students assigned a black teacher by third grade were 7 percent more likely to graduate high school and 13 percent more likely to enroll in college than their peers in the same school not assigned a black teacher in those early grades.

Having a teacher of color has been shown to improve a litany of outcomes for students of color: performance in reading and math, the likelihood black students are identified as gifted, and the likelihood they go on to college; diverse teachers can also help reduce suspension and dropout rates for students of color. Advocates for more teacher diversity also argue that all students benefit from seeing people of color in front of their classroom.

“Teacher diversity can lead to improved student outcomes for students of color, and we know that it is important for students from all backgrounds to see diverse educators in positions of authority throughout their academic experience,” Rosenblum said.

Teachers of color interviewed for this article often cited teachers of their race who inspired them as students, a demonstration that they could aspire to that role. Indeed, educators frequently highlighted the importance teachers play in implicitly modeling for students the kinds of careers and fields they can pursue.

“If you are a diverse school district, you should have teachers that reflect your students. Students should be able to see, 'Wow, my teacher is a black mathematician or historian or musician,' " said Julia Holcomb, who has taught social studies at Schenectady High School for nearly 20 years and traces her education heritage to her grandmother, Anna Holcomb, who was the first black teacher in her segregated 1920s Virginia county. “Students need to see that there is someone like me out there and I can be like that. I can be that science teacher, that physics teacher. I can be the principal of the school.”

Matt Pinchinat, who is starting his third year as a social studies teacher at Guilderland High School, couldn’t recall having a black teacher at the front of his classrooms growing up. Then again, Pinchinat didn’t need to have a black teacher to model for him: His dad was a teacher in Schenectady and around the region.

“Teaching was always just an option to me,” Pinchinat said. “Seeing how my dad cared about his students was inspirational to me.”

Pinchinat said that all teachers can connect with their students and work to use student diversity as a tool for fostering discussion on a wide range of subjects. He recalled teachers he said helped him see the world in new ways, teachers who were white. Just like white teachers can support diverse students, he said as an example, he can support women in the unique challenges they face.

“I am not a woman, but I can empathize,” Pinchinat said. “I will never truly get it like a woman, but I can still be an active participant in those conversations.”

He also pointed out that many if not all professions need greater diversity to better reflect the people they serve.

Some of the young teachers recalled experiences as students they felt their teachers at the time didn’t handle as well as they could have.

MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Broadalbin Perth High School graduate Mayur Patel who will be teaching business in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District this year.MARC SCHULTZ/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER
Broadalbin Perth High School graduate Mayur Patel who will be teaching business in the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District this year.

Patel, for example, said he used to do well during classroom “around-the-world” games, where students would face off to see who could solve a math problem faster. Classmates would tell him he was “lucky to be Indian,” suggesting his race made him a math whiz, not his own practice and hard work. As a Broadalbin-Perth student, during tough budget years, Patel visited a school board meeting to share his thoughts on the importance of education and the fact that many immigrants move to America to pursue a better education for themselves and their children. An adult in the crowd shouted at him: “Go back to your country,” he recalled. He also endured comments and questions about his chandlo, a mark on his forehead that’s part of his faith, and other racialized comments. 

“It’s rough,” Patel said. “Thinking back, if I had a teacher of color, someone who would probably relate, I think that makes a big difference.”

Patel lauded his experience working at Burnt Hills last school year — calling the district’s teachers “phenomenal” — but said he hopes his students and his children can grow up in schools full of teachers of different backgrounds, experiences, races, ethnicities, and religious and political views.  

As more teachers of color make it into the classroom, he said, that should bring even more teachers of color into future classes, building a momentum of positive influences. 

“The more diverse teachers you get into the system, the more they will bring from the next generation,” Patel said. “They see if that person can do it, so can I.”

Tatiana Johnson, 22, who is working on her education master’s degree at Clarkson, last month started her yearlong classroom residency at an Albany charter school. Charter schools frequently have more diverse staffs than traditional public schools.

She said many of her friends ask her why she would want to teach. For many black students who graduate college, she said, teaching is the last thing they want to do. “They hate school,” she said. 

“Even in a diverse school, you can never really be yourself. Being a black student, it’s like every single rule is made against you,” she said, pointing to dress codes and everyday language use, how a lunchroom table full of loud white students is just teenagers being teenagers, but the same table of black students is “disturbing everyone’s peace.” 

But Johnson remembers the black teacher she had in elementary school — the one she remembered “was always smiling and nice” — who served as a model and motivation for her own career pursuit. She said suburban districts need teachers of color, but that she wants to work in a district with a large share of students of color, where she thinks she can have the biggest impact. 

“A student spends so much time at school, so if you can’t even be yourself at school it trickles down to the rest of your life,” Johnson said. “I want my students to be able to come to class and be themselves.”

Lifting all teachers

Jolene DiBrango, executive vice president at New York State United Teachers, said the statewide teachers union is working to “elevate the profession” in an effort to encourage a wider array of people to consider teaching as a career. The union sees the effort as important for both bolstering educator diversity and bringing more people into the profession, which is grappling with a shortage focused in particular on areas like special education, English language learners and the sciences.

Union leaders and many educators argue the profession has been “run down” in recent years and are calling for a positive focus on the teaching profession to encourage more people to pursue it — from young students to so-called career changers who find a new passion in education. 

Also see: Schenectady focuses on diversifying staff

“Without teachers there aren’t any other professions out there,” DiBrango said. “We have an incredible job to teach students not just content, but about character and citizenship … how to impact change in their community. It’s such a powerful job, and I don’t think everyone sees it that way.”

The union supports programs in districts like Schenectady and Amsterdam that provide bias training and other professional support to current teachers. Legislatively, the union supports funding for teacher mentor programs, loan forgiveness and scholarships that help students of color pursue teaching careers. 

“All students should have that experience to be able to point to several teachers they can see themselves in,” DiBrango said.

Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified a religious mark worn by Mayur Patel. It is called a chandlo. 

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