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With the spring semester upon us, districts across the nation are still struggling with teacher shortages. In New Jersey, it’s a crisis that is making it harder to hire and retain Black and Latino teachers.

Teacher shortages continue to disproportionately affect historically underserved communities. Black educators are leaving the profession in high numbers, and this reality harms an often vulnerable school population. Representation matters, and education is starving for it.

While districts scramble to fill vacancies, schools must do a better job not only hiring diverse teachers, but also keeping them on board. When children have exposure to school leaders from a variety of cultures, they do better both in K-12 classrooms and in our communities.

Related: Schools can’t afford to lose any more Black male educators

Study after study shows that student outcomes are affected by the existence of a demographic match between teachers and students. Black and Latino students perform better when they have at least one teacher who is the same race. A “disadvantaged” Black male’s exposure to at least one Black teacher in elementary school reduces his probability of dropping out of high school by nearly 40 percent.

I know firsthand what racial representation on campus can do for a young student. I had a single mother, and my Black male teachers stood in as father figures for me.

When children have exposure to school leaders from a variety of cultures, they demonstrate better outcomes both in K-12 classrooms and in our communities.

These adults connected with me culturally. They knew what it was like to grow up poor in the inner city. They spoke from experience, with a level of explicitness that forced me to listen when they shared advice about what to look for in friends and assured me that I would belong in college.

Their words were among the significant factors that drove me to attend college, and why I chose education as my major. I was mentored, educated and held accountable by Black males who had persevered in college and graduated. My relationships with them changed my life and shaped who I became as an adult.

That’s why at College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS) in New Jersey, where I’m now the chief academic officer and executive director of College Achieve Paterson, we’ve made it our mission to hire — and retain — teachers who represent the diversity of our students. We serve mostly Black and Latino students who fall below the poverty line, and 70 percent of the educators at CAPS Paterson identify as Black or Latino.

This type of representation isn’t the norm in New Jersey, where 6.6 percent of teachers are Black and 9.3 percent are Latino, while 15 percent of students are Black and 31 percent Latino. The discrepancy is magnified in my hometown of Paterson, where more than a quarter of the general population identifies as Black and more than 60 percent as Latino.

Related: The culture wars are driving teachers from the classroom. Two campaigns are trying to help

While at College Achieve we don’t have all the answers, we’ve seen how a representative teaching staff positively affects our students and our school community. Our academic outcomes are improving — even through the pandemic — and our students are outperforming their peers in neighboring schools in every grade level in both math and English Language Arts.

Students can envision their own paths to success through their teachers’ journeys. Here’s how we hire, and retain, teachers who reflect the diversity of our students.

First, we partner with nearby universities to hire qualified Black and Latino college students as substitute teachers and pair them with experienced school staff for mentoring.

Once they earn their bachelor’s degrees, these substitutes can earn full teaching certificates through the state’s alternate teacher pathway and return to College Achieve. Since 2018, we’ve hired 18 of these educators into full teaching positions.

Second, we encourage and facilitate a more fulfilling and innovative approach to teaching. Our teachers motivate our students, who have enormous potential but limited resources, to think critically rather than just look for the “right” answer. Our low student-to-teacher ratio allows us to provide individualized attention, including for students who are English learners or academically at-risk or have disabilities. This approach leads to teacher retention.

Finally, we cultivate an inclusive staff culture, in which teachers not only feel comfortable enough to stay, but confident enough to move up and grow their careers. We help teachers understand what it means to be anti-racist and how to communicate these practices with our students.

More than academics, it’s about sharing lived experiences. Of course, it wasn’t only Black male teachers who influenced my life. Students need diverse teachers. But when I walk into a classroom and share my story, it resonates with our students.

It ignites what’s possible, and shows our students what can happen when they believe in themselves. By replicating the CAPS model, we can ensure that teachers really connect with students and empower our next generation of leaders.

Gemar Mills is chief academic officer of College Achieve Public Schools (CAPS) in New Jersey and executive director of CAPS Paterson.

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