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Black teachers can help Black students

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One of the dire questions people in education will have to answer soon is whether a mostly white teaching force can effectively educate an increasingly diverse student body, and, if not, how to change the demographics of America’s teachers.

Since 2015, white students have made up less than half of the student body nationally at public schools, but 80% of public school teachers were white, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 7% of teachers were Black.

Leaders from Marian University’s Klipsch Educators College and the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) are collaborating to try to mitigate this problem in Central Indiana.

The educators college began an initiative to increase diversity in 2016, when 7.5% of students were non-white. The goal is to get to 40% by 2025, according to Dean Ken Britt, and the program was already at 34% in the fall of 2019.

About a year and a half ago, the focus expanded to include specifically Black males, who make up about 2% of teachers nationally.

A private Catholic college isn’t going to have the necessary influence and credibility with the students it’s trying to attract, which is why collaborating with UNCF is important.

“When you have an organization that’s able to advocate for the work we’re doing,” Britt said, “it makes the conversations we have with these students a little easier because there’s more credibility for us.”

Those students can then also take advantage of UNCF scholarships.

The two sides have hosted a panel discussion targeted at non-white students to let them know what opportunities there are for future educators — or at least those who might be interested in education.

They’ll join Teach Plus Indiana for an event Feb. 27 to discuss the challenges of retaining non-white teachers. The free forum is 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the WFYI Public Media Community Room, 1630 N. Meridian St. Register online.

Andrea Neely, Indianapolis regional development director for UNCF, worries students are being discouraged from pursuing a career in education because of concerns about teacher pay and political fights that play out in the arena of education, which she considers “bureaucracy” that “stands in the way of progress.”

Neely, who remembers her son asking why the only Black people he saw at his school were janitors, said a big part of why students don’t consider going into education is because they see so few Black teachers in their classrooms growing up.

“That’s why it’s so important to build a pipeline of having teachers of color in the classroom,” she said, “because students aren’t seeing teachers who look like them.”

Jo Burnside, a third grade teacher at Rhoades Elementary School in Wayne Township, remembers having only one Black teacher — when she was in high school — during her K-12 education. She knew other Black teachers, though, because there were three on her father’s side of the family, and she formed a friendship with a Black elementary teacher while volunteering in high school.

“I feel like it’s very, very powerful when you can see someone that looks like you doing something that you aspire to do,” Burnside said.

Research suggests, if nothing else, Black students achieve greater academic heights and have an increased likelihood of considering college when they grow up with at least some Black teachers in their classrooms.

In 2004, Stanford University professor Tom Dee analyzed participants in a study about class sizes in Tennessee and found Black students who were assigned to a Black teacher for at least one year between kindergarten and third grade had their math scores increase by 3 to 5 percentage points and their reading scores increase by 3 to 6 percentage points.

A 2017 study co-authored by John Hopkins University economist Nicholas Papageorge found low-income Black male students with a Black teacher in third to fifth grade had a 29% increased interest in going to college and 39% less chance of dropping out of high school.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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