A decade ago, Richard Cowes quit his high-paying job in the insurance industry to go into education. He started off teaching as a substitute, earning $50 a day, just to see what the profession would be like. After he completed an alternative certification program, New Haven hired him to teach math classes.
“I left a whole lot of money on the table, which I still haven’t made back yet, because I wanted to become a teacher,” said Cowes, who’s now working at the city’s Adult Education program. “I was always teaching and mentoring as a basketball coach and personal trainer. But I had a passion, I wanted to do more.”
Cowes is a rarity: a black male within a faculty that’s made up largely of white women. To boost the diversity of the school’s hires, the district is now doubling down on a strategy of training paraprofessionals to become certified teachers, just as Cowes did.
That strategy of promoting educators already within the school system was one of the ideas that a committee of alders heard at its meeting Thursday night for recruiting, training and retaining more faculty of color. The event was initiated by Alder Darryl Brackeen, Jr., a former social studies teacher at Lincoln-Bassett who said he ran into “hurdles constantly” in trying to get his certification.
During the the two-hour back-and-forth in the aldermanic chambers, the Education Committee heard about the district’s outreach to historically black colleges and recruiting trips abroad and about its work towards implementing a cultural competence curriculum. Despite those efforts, school officials said they face persistent challenges in shifting their numbers.
“There’s a conversation that needs to be had,” said Lisa Mack, the district’s human resources director. “We need to ask the question: Why aren’t other teachers of color, candidates of color interested in coming into education?”
Last school year, 73.6 percent of teachers reported that they are white. That’s a jarring mismatch with New Haven’s population of students, who are predominantly racial minorities, only 13.3 percent of whom report that they are white.
Last year, New Haven’s “racial gap” between teachers and students was among the largest in the state. Out of the 14 districts that the Connecticut State Department of Education tracks, New Haven came out ahead of only Waterbury and East Hartford, Mack said.
New Haven has received more interest from teachers of color than its numbers would suggest. Racial minorities represented 44 percent of the applicant pool last year.
Mack said she didn’t have data about how many of them had been chosen. But based on staffing levels over the past four years, it appears that the district isn’t adding more teachers of color than are leaving.
Out of the 2,056 teachers currently working in the district, there’s only 33 more Hispanics, 15 more African-Americans, 6 more Asians, and 1 more Native American on staff than four years ago. Over the same time period, there are 14 fewer white teachers.
The staffing demographics do vary across the district, but only two — Columbus Family Academy and James Hillhouse High School — had a majority of teachers of color last year.
Glen Worthy said he’d been lucky to start with a diverse faculty, when he was appointed Hillhouse’s principal in 2016. He said that he thinks the school’s numbers stay so high because of the relationships that have been built among the faculty, especially during the hourlong “professional learning” sessions that are scheduled twice a week.
“I know what I walked into and how the staff really treats each other. It’s really like a family. That’s made it easier for me to retain teachers, having them interact with each other and be able to lean on each other when there’s issues,” he said in a phone interview. “There’s more ownership of Hillhouse.”
Long ago, the district had many more teachers of color. A quarter-century ago, racial minorities made up about one-third of the teaching force. Like Reggie Mayo, who worked his way up from being a substitute teacher to the superintendent, many of those employees of color rose to administrative roles. The upper ranks of New Haven’s schools are now among the most diverse in the state, but they’re leading faculties that are much whiter.
What can be done to change the demographics?
After to a change in state law, it’s now much easier to recruit teachers from out-of-state or certify the paraprofessionals who are already in the building.
The district is also trying to reach out to local colleges, especially through New Haven Promise, Mack said. There’s a built-in pipeline from Southern Connecticut State University, thanks to state law passed in 2016 now requires state universities to offer at least one class for juniors and seniors, tuition-free, “to cultivate an interest in education as a profession.”
But Mack said she’s also looking to recruit from outside the area to lessen competition in shortage areas.
“What we found is that we’re just moving [teachers of color] from one district to another. We might move someone from New London to Hartford. The numbers weren’t changing, they’re just shifting around within Connecticut,” Mack said. “How do we diversify the district more by going outside of Connecticut state lines?”
That’s why, she added, the district brought in presidents and deans from 30 historically black colleges and universities for a symposium in 2016 to share their mission of diversifying the teaching force. That’s also why they made a recruiting trip to Puerto Rico and attracted five teachers from Spain.
Mack said that the also district relies heavily on outside programs to also train teachers.
The district actively recruits from the Teach for America corps, a program for recent graduates to teach after a summer-long training, because those teachers receive an incentive for completing their service in an urban area.
And the district also partners with Relay Graduate School of Education, a masters-degree program, because it gets teachers into the classroom right away while doing a combination of online and in-person coursework.
Commenters said the district needed to build up the pipeline even earlier.
“We meet countless people of color who, if you ask them what they want to do, say they want to work with young people. But they end up going into sociology, psychology and health. But they come back and say they want to be teachers. Then, it’s a dance of getting back into teacher prep programs,” said Kevin Walton, who works on recruiting diverse teachers at ACES. “If we start getting these people at a younger age.”