Students stream through the orange-lockered hallways of Fern Creek High School and eventually make their way outside of the school. It’s the end of the day on a Thursday afternoon, but the day isn’t over yet for a group of students gathering for a Black Student Union meeting.
There are about a dozen students here — ranging in age from sophomores to seniors. And for these students, the lack of any teachers who look like them has been obvious over the course of their high school careers.
“Where’s the people that look like me?” said Don Trowell, an 18-year-old senior. “I see a lot of white women but I don’t see anyone else like me, you know?”
Fern Creek High School had approximately 1,600 students in the 2016-2017 school year. And district data showed that while students of color made up more than half the population, nearly 90 percent of teachers were white.
These stats reflect the general trend of Jefferson County Public Schools where 84 percent of the more than 6,000 teachers in the district are white, while students of color make up more than half of the district.
A New Policy
In May, following a call by Kentucky’s interim education commissioner for a state takeover of the district, JCPS approved a race and equity policy to address racial disparities. Part of the plan includes closing the achievement gap between black and white students, as well as diversifying the district’s teachers to better reflect the student population.
Chief Equity Officer John Marshall said there’s clear evidence that students of color benefit from having non-white teachers.
“Teachers of color are more likely to identify [students of color] as gifted, least likely to suspend them, and set high expectations,” Marshall said.
“What we did with this plan is create additional levels of accountability so that we are pulling in community members to help us maintain focus on this,” Marshall said.
‘It sounds wonderful on paper’
This isn’t the district’s first attempt at tackling teacher diversity.
As WFPL News reported in 2014, officials discussed the disproportionate number of white teachers compared to minority teachers at JCPS schools and vowed to address it. Out of 522 new teachers hired that year, 76 were minorities. Applications from minority candidates accounted for just 15 percent of all applications received that year, according to district data.
That’s why John Marshall, JCPS chief equity officer, understands if people are skeptical about the new plan.
“One of the things public institutions — systems in general — are notorious for is creating a policy and doing nothing with it,” Marshall said.
He said one strategy the district is starting to employ is conditionally hiring aspiring teachers of color as early as their sophomore year in college, pending the completion of certification requirements.
“So if you raise your hand and say ‘I want to teach in JCPS,’ we will be conditionally hiring,” he said.
But with such a large gap, college may not be early enough. Marshall said some organizations have identified aspiring teachers of color as early as high school.
A Problem Beyond Louisville
A lack of teacher diversity isn’t isn’t just a problem in Jefferson County. Nationally, 80 percent of teachers are white and they’re overwhelmingly women.
Experts say there are a lot of reasons why the public educator workforce isn’t very diverse. They include black and Latino college students not completing degrees at the same rate as white students, less interest in majoring in education among students of color, and white students getting hired as teachers at higher rates.
And as with many issues of race in the country, the lack of diversity in schools has been an issue since segregation, said Cassandra Herring, founder of the Texas-based Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity.
Herring also points to issues with retention in teacher prep programs. She said it starts with why some people of color want to be teachers in the first place.
“Candidates went into programs thinking that they were going into a multicultural, social justice-oriented program and then when they got there they realized, ‘no, this program is just as assimilationist, it’s just as marginalizing, it’s just as distanced as the rest of my schooling,’” said Herring.
Some minority teachers also want to see more people of color in administration. Kumar Rashad, a math teacher in JCPS, shares this sentiment.
“There’s not enough minorities in administration,” said Rashad. He said not having leadership be more reflective of the school population places a ceiling on the profession.
According to current district data, approximately 72 percent of the 267 assistant and associate principals in JCPS are white. And 70 percent of the district’s 147 principals are white.
“Both sides, students and teachers, need to see more of ‘us’ in leadership positions so we can have something to aspire to become,” Rashad said. “It has that ‘Obama effect’ that you see someone that looks like you [in a position] that you thought you couldn’t do.”
‘She really cared about my daughter’s success’
Carla Robinson went to JCPS schools as a kid, and now has two children in the system. She’s black, and said she never developed lasting relationships with her white teachers growing up.
“None of my teachers reached out to my mom unless I was in trouble,” Robinson said.
But she said her eight-year-old daughter, Sara, already has a strong bond with the one black teacher she had during her first years in public school.
“I still text her teacher. Her teacher still asks about her,” Robinson said. “She really cared about my daughter’s success.”
That’s not to say that white teachers aren’t involved with students. But relating to a teacher can go a long way for some parents and students in public schools.
Mason Lin, a 17-year-old junior at Fern Creek, is white and Asian. He’s a member of the Black Student Union and also started the Asian Student Union at the school. He’s also been vocal about the district employing more teachers of color.
“The only teacher I met of my color is … I didn’t even have,” he said. “It was just an issue I’ve never really thought of until now. But then I realized all the benefits everyone else was receiving and it really just made me realize what was out there.”