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PHOENIX, Ariz. — When Sandra Jenkins started teaching at Betty H. Fairfax High School in Phoenix 14 years ago, she had three Master’s degrees and four teaching certificates. But it wasn’t that wall of degrees that most strongly informed her passion for teaching: It was the support she received growing up as a Black child taught by Black educators in her Mississippi hometown, and at her alma mater, a historically Black college.

“I know the impact. I’m a beneficiary of what that’s like,” she said, seated at a small conference table in her business classroom, full of gleaming computers. “I just want to share that and make sure our kids know that we know it’s important to them.”

Jenkins said one of the reasons she has been teaching in the Phoenix Union High School District, one of 30 public school districts here, for so long is that she doesn’t feel alone. She feels connected to her colleagues in the district’s Black Alliance, a district-sponsored coalition of Black educators who support one another and advocate for Black students. And she believes her superintendent wants the same thing that Alliance members want: equitable student achievement.

Saniyah Santana, left, a junior at Cesar Chavez High School in Phoenix talks with Sandra Jenkins, a high school business teacher who leads tours of Historically Black Colleges and Universities for interested students. Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report

“Ultimately we all have the same goal,” she said. “If being more diverse and having more African American teachers and administrators would help our kids and our community, that’s what I think our district [superintendent] would do. He’s listening to us.”

Unlike most school districts around the country, Phoenix Union has managed to recruit and retain a diverse teaching force, with 40 percent of district educators identifying as Hispanic, African American, Asian or Native American, according to district data. That doesn’t exactly represent the diversity of the student body here, which is 80 percent Hispanic and 8 percent African American, but it’s closer than in many other places.

By recruiting and then mentoring new teachers of color, listening to these teachers’ requests, supporting the development of culturally responsive curricula and promoting educators of color into administrative and district leadership positions, Phoenix Union is getting steadily closer to aligning its teacher and student populations.

“This work is possible. It’s happening.”

Cassandra Herring, CEO of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity

“You have to first set that goal,” said Chad Gestson, Phoenix Union’s superintendent, who is white. “We are publicly and unapologetically clear that we want to have a teacher workforce that’s reflective of our community.”

There is no longer much debate that recruiting and retaining teachers of color is essential. All students, including white students, benefit from having teachers of color, according to a summary of the research by the Learning Policy Institute. In one study, students rank teachers of color higher than white teachers on multiple measures, including feeling cared for and academically challenged. Such rankings have been correlated to student academic gains. And students of color do better academically and are more likely to graduate and go to college if some of their teachers look like them, research shows. And yet, few districts have achieved the goal of building a teaching workforce that looks like its students. While the percentage of white students has steadily decreased nationwide in recent decades — from 54 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2018 — nearly 80 percent of public school teachers are white, according to the most recent federal survey.

“The frustration is this has been a problem for 20 years,” said Margarita Bianco, an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Colorado in Denver. “And while we know what needs to happen, it happens at a snail’s pace. It seems like it’s taking forever.”

Related: Two percent of teachers are Black men. A city is trying to recruit more

It’s not that state leaders aren’t aware that students aren’t served well when most teachers are white while most students are not, but progress is slow.

Representatives from 10 states came together in 2018 to form the Diverse and Learner-Ready Teachers Initiative. The program, launched by the Council of Chief State School Officers, aims to diversify the teacher workforce. Results so far are varied. In Colorado the initiative has been focused on defining the ideas of diversity and culturally responsive practice, and how those terms relate to teacher recruitment, retention and other elements of the teacher pipeline. Illinois has developed culturally responsive teaching and leading standards with the goal of attracting and retaining more teachers of color.

In Phoenix Union, diversity is paramount, starting with the hiring process, said Gestson. Hiring panels reflect the district’s diversity and help it avoid bias in hiring decisions. And candidates with non-traditional teaching backgrounds are considered.

The student body at North High School in the Phoenix Union High School District is 80 percent Hispanic and 8 percent African American. Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report

Leaders here plan to use federal Covid relief funds to establish a system to find and support district employees who have an interest in teaching. Over the past two years, the district has hired six teachers from among its non-teaching staff, including a Black bus driver who recently earned his teaching credentials and now teaches history.

“Some districts miss that opportunity,” Gestson said. “These are educators. They might not be teachers, but they’re educators who already love schools and understand children. And they are committed to the district.”

The district’s human resources department plans to hire a staff member specifically to build this diverse pipeline of educators in the district. The new professional development specialist will identify employees with potential and help them work through the process of obtaining certification.

“When diverse candidates see that we have leaders that look like them and have similar goals in terms of serving students, we can attract people that wouldn’t otherwise consider Phoenix Union.”

Juvenal Lopez, the executive director of talent at the Phoenix Union High School District

This method, supporting non-credentialed staff as they pursue teaching as a career, is working elsewhere. In the Highline Public School District outside of Seattle, a bilingual fellows program helps district paraeducators become certified. The program generates 15 new teachers every other year, said Steve Grubb, chief talent officer for the district. In 2018-19, 45 percent of new teacher hires in Highline were people of color. Since 2014, Grubb said, the largely Latino district has boosted teacher diversity by more than 30 percent, to a large extent by hiring Latino teachers to staff dual-language programs.

“This work is possible. It’s happening,” said Cassandra Herring, CEO of Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity in Austin. “We don’t have to be theoretical about what we’re doing. There are ways to move the needle.”

In Phoenix Union, hiring teachers without a traditional education degree isn’t brand new. Some 12 years ago, Therese Arvizu decided to change careers and become a teacher. When she interviewed for a job at North High School in Phoenix Union she had a college degree and 11 years’ experience working in nonprofits, but no teaching credential. She was offered the job anyway, as well as a stipend to help her get a Master’s degree and credentials while she worked teaching English.

“At that time I was the only Chicana in the department,” said Arvizu. “Not anymore.”

English teacher Therese Arvizu’s classroom is decorated with posters of authors, including a large picture of Gloria Anzaldúa, whose book “Borderlands” is foundational to the course Arvizu helped develop. Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report

After more than a decade in the classroom, Arvizu experienced some burnout, but she recently rediscovered her passion for teaching. She said it was partly because district leaders listened when she and other teachers of color repeatedly asked for the opportunity to build a curriculum that more directly addressed their students’ racial, ethnic and cultural identities. Last summer, Arvizu worked with four other Chicano teachers to develop a new course for seniors: English and the Chicanx Perspective. They were paid for their work. 

“That was the first time, in a professional setting, where we were able to talk about the literature that we grew up with, that had a lot to do with our identity and our love of literature,” she recalled. “It was a way for us to come to certain goals, to help students of color who were struggling. We really felt that cultural responsiveness was something we could do together.”

Arvizu’s classroom is decorated with posters of authors, including a large picture of Gloria Anzaldúa, whose book “Borderlandsis foundational to the course Arvizu helped develop. Every student who enrolled this fall is Latino, and most are Chicano.

“I think it does make a difference that the curriculum reflects them,” she said. “We have lengthier discussions in this course, and this has revitalized my excitement for teaching.”

Research shows that students of color do better academically and are more likely to graduate and go to college if some of their teachers look like them. While the percentage of white students has steadily decreased nationwide — from 54 percent in 2009 to 47 percent in 2018 — nearly 80 percent of public school teachers are white. Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report

Keeping teachers engaged in their work is key to retention regardless of race, but for teachers of color it’s especially critical. Burnout, already high, has risen during the pandemic, especially among Black teachers, according to recent research by the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan research firm. And most states’ efforts at recruiting and retaining teachers of color are abysmal. Nearly 87 percent of Washington state’s classroom teachers are white. In Oregon, that number is nearly 88 percent. Arizona’s numbers are even worse. Almost 91 percent of teachers working in the state’s schools this year are white.

The goal in Phoenix Union is to foster a culture that supports teachers and enables them to develop curriculum that reflect its students — in addition to the course focused on the Chicano perspective, culturally relevant English courses have also been developed for Black and Native American seniors. The district also prioritizes hiring educators that reflect its student population, a practice that extends all the way up to the top district leadership. When visitors enter the Phoenix Union central office building, photos of the top-level administration team hang next to reception. Of an executive team of 16, a dozen are people of color. The visual statement can’t be ignored: This is a district with diverse leadership. District-wide, more than half the administrators are people of color, according to district data.

Juvenal Lopez, the district’s executive director of talent, said that makes a difference when it comes to recruitment. For example, he said, a Black student teacher from another district told him the fact that the principal at her new Phoenix Union school would be Black was a big factor in her decision to accept a full-time offer.

Phoenix Union has managed to recruit and retain a diverse teaching force, with 40 percent of district educators identifying as Hispanic, African American, Asian or Native American, according to district data. Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report

“She told me she had thought she’d have to go to California to find a district that was ready for her to join,” Lopez said. “When diverse candidates see that we have leaders that look like them and have similar goals in terms of serving students, we can attract people that wouldn’t otherwise consider Phoenix Union.”

But attracting such teachers isn’t enough, Lopez and other district leaders said. The district must also keep them. Lopez said the district may add a new position, a retention specialist, to its staff specifically to help keep teachers in the district.

More than a thousand miles away, south of Portland, Oregon, the North Clackamas School District pairs new teachers with mentors and runs multiple affinity groups to support educators and administrators of color. Since 2014, North Clackamas has increased new teacher diversity by 35 percent, according to district data. The district has had a retention specialist, with classroom experience, on staff for the past five years.

“The frustration is this [lack of teacher diversity] has been a problem for 20 years.”

Margarita Bianco, University of Colorado

“Coming from the classroom I saw that revolving door of new teaching partners,” said Michelle Doyle, who was the district’s retention specialist for three years and is now an assistant principal. Doyle, who is Black, said the district’s affinity group for staff of color had five participants when she started the job. Today, it has more than 40. “It’s all about building connections.”

In Phoenix, teachers with a vested interest in retaining teachers of color, like Jenkins, the Black business teacher, are empowered to do so. Jenkins, who is president of the district’s Black Alliance, said the group supports Black teachers when they want to apply for administrator positions by running colleagues through mock interviews and helping them update resumés and letters of recommendation. She hopes this will help increase the number of administrators and counselors of color in the district, including at Fairfax High, which was named after a Black educator who taught in the district and retired as an administrator in 2006.

Nationwide, the number of Black teachers is declining, and ample research shows that Black teachers are more likely to leave the profession than their white counterparts, due in part, some teachers say, to feelings of isolation and concerns over racist behavior in the workplace. It isn’t always easy for Black teachers in Phoenix Union, either. Black teachers make up less than 10 percent of the teacher workforce and it isn’t uncommon for new Black hires to express feeling uncomfortable on the job, Jenkins said. The Alliance helps them too.

Related: Black teachers ground down by racial battle fatigue after a year like no other

“We have a young teacher who just started,” she said. “We had to make sure she was connected with someone on her campus who could support her and talk her off the ledge whenever she started to feel like, ‘I can’t do this.’”

Other districts have also developed robust mentorship programs, especially for teachers who are just starting out. Washington state’s block grant program issues block grants to support districts in their efforts to train teacher mentors and to focus on teachers who were certified through alternative pathways.

Long-term, Phoenix Union hopes to grow more of its own applicants for teaching positions among the graduates of Phoenix Ed Prep, a high school scheduled to open in 2023 for a total of 400 students. The newest among the district’s small schools focused on Career and Technical Education, Phoenix Ed Prep will offer college-credit courses in teaching, social work and psychology to students interested in education careers, according to district staff.

“Grow-your-own” teacher programs are one answer to getting teachers in the door who represent their communities and have the local support they need to stay in the classroom when things get hard. When successful, the programs have the double benefit of building a teaching pipeline and diversifying the workforce.

Therese Arvizu, an English teacher, meets with one of her students at North High School in Phoenix. Every student who enrolled in her new Chicano literature class this fall is Latino, and most are Chicano. Credit: Brandon Sullivan for The Hechinger Report

The University of Nevada, Las Vegas partners with Clark County high schools to encourage students of color to enter the teaching profession. The program has seen a five percent increase in Latino students in its teacher preparation program from 10 years ago. More than 30 states partner with the nonprofit Educators Rising, including New Mexico, Texas and Oregon, to support diverse high school and college students in entering the teaching profession. Students who participate in the program are four times more likely to stick with their plans to teach than to enter other professions.

Back in Phoenix, incentives like student loan forgiveness and help buying a home and car, may entice some graduates of Phoenix Ed Prep to return to Phoenix Union to work, according to the school’s future principal.

“Phoenix Union is perfectly poised to help diversify not only the teacher workforce but the educator workforce,” said Alaina Adams, who will serve as principal of the new high school. “What we’re aiming to do is get into the beginning of the teacher training continuum, the pre-pre-service, the shadowing and mentoring, to fortify our local pipeline.”

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  1. Just read your article “To increase and maintain teacher diversity, listen to teachers of color” by Kate Rix. She got it exactly right. I’m director of the CityU of Seattle Startalk Teacher Certification Program, a grant project formerly under the NFLC, now under the NSA. However one condition is the supported teacher candidates must be fluent in a critical language; so our focus has been Chinese and Korean, although we’ve also included Arabic, Hindi, Portuguese speakers in the past. I find the more we personalize, differentiate and provide culturally appropriate responses to feedback, the higher our recruiting and retention rates of candidates in teacher certification. We also hire program alumni as much as possible to teach certification courses and serve as master language mentors. To facilitate placements for student teaching, we recommend schools, where we already have alumni teaching, to be a source of additional support for student teachers. Your research in the area of teacher diversity is in line with what we’ve found to be successful.

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