Group wants race gap closed
Cites lack of diversity among teachers in urban schools
BRIDGEPORT — The only male role models Ryan Brown recalls while attending Danbury High School was his football coaches.
“They had my back,” Brown recalls fondly. But they did not look like him.
Now a seventh- grade math teacher at Read School, Brown, 29, said he has a handful of colleagues who, like himself, are black. Not nearly enough, he added.
So when the opportunity came to work with other members of Educators for Excellence on a paper that explored how to improve the ratio of minority teachers in urban settings and create a more culturally responsive curriculum, Brown said it was a no- brainer.
“We all recognize the importance of having teachers and school leaders of color, yet a major disparity between teachers and students persists,” said Brown. “I hope this paper spurs changes that will ensure a better education for our students in Bridgeport and throughout the state.”
The just- released report, “Students Today, Educators Tomorrow” calls for more culturally responsive teacher training, programs that groom students of color to consider teaching as a profession, statesupported “Grow Your Own” programs that offer free college tuition in exchange for returning to the district to teach and a program to offer housing subsides for teachers, particularly in Fairfield County where the cost of living is high.
“We wanted to be realistic. We didn’t just want to throw things out in the air,” said Sheree Baldwin- Muhammad, an-
other of the report’s nine authors. She teaches at New Beginnings Family Academy, a charter school located in the city.
She hopes the report can be a catalyst for legislative change, or at least discussion.
It has yet to be shared, however, with district or state education officials, lawmakers or Bridgeport Education Association, the local teacher’s union.
E4E is a nationwide, teacher- led organization that has been in Bridgeport for five years. It has a somewhat frosty relationship with the teacher’s union.
Gary Peluchetti, president of the Bridgeport Education Association, pointed out on Friday that the local has offered much of the cultural awareness and unconscious bias training that the paper recommends. The BEA has an ethnic minority chair, Mia Dimbo, who also serves in that capacity on the Connecticut Education Associations Board of Directors.
“Our association ... has long been an organization of civil rights activism for minority teachers and students, as well as LGBTQ teachers and students,” Peluchette said. “We are warriors for social justice.”
Katherine Bucheli, one of the report authors, said the goal was to spark conversation.
“To create a space to talk more about the impact of cultural diversity,” said Bucheli, who taught last year in Bridgeport and this year in Stamford. “It is really important to talk about.”
Why it matters
Research shows that all students benefit from having teachers of color in the classroom, said Ebony Walmsely, managing director of external affairs for Educators For Excellence Connecticut, which assembled the teachers to study the issue.
That is particularly true of minority males.
Researcher Seth Gershenson of American University, in a 2017 study, found black students with teachers of the same race performed better on standardized tests and were viewed more favorably by their teachers. More go on to attend college. Fewer end up dropping out.
It is not entirely clear why.
As the number of minority student population in the state grows, however, the percentage of teachers of color remains somewhat stagnant.
In Bridgeport, nearly nine out of ten students identify as minorities. The latest state figures, from 2017- 18, put the number of minority educators in the district at 26 percent. The gaps are comparable in Hartford and New Haven.
In the last school year, out of nearly 1,700 certified staff in Bridgeport, 10.8 were Hispanic, 12.7 percent were black, 2.6 percent were Asian or Native American and 74 percent were white.
Statewide, 9 percent of teachers are of color while 46 percent of the student population identifies with one or more race or ethnic minority.
Walmsely called it a serious diversity gap.
The group’s policy team spent months assembling data. They said they surveyed 60 teachers statewide and met with stakeholders.
What they say they found was a vicious cycle of too few teachers of color to serve as positive role models leading to few students of color who see teaching as a viable career path.
What they want
To break the cycle, the group recommends that teachers, regardless of their background, get consistent and ongoing training in a culturally responsive curriculum. They’d like to see it written into the teacher contract.
They’d also like to see the district hire a coach who could train teachers in multicultural education. A tall order in a district that, because of budget cuts, let all its math and reading coaches go this year.
Brown said some schools in the district still employ coaches to train teachers in positive behaviors and social and emotional learning.
“A diversity coach could help students in the long run be more comfortable with education,” he said.
Teachers, said BaldwinMuhammad, not only need to know how to teach a multicultural curriculum but be mindful of how they see and treat students of color. Often, she said, teachers perceive students by the way they look and dress. It happened to her own sons and with a step- daughter who is Muslim, she said.
Rob Vogelpohl, a secondyear Spanish teacher at Central High School, agreed. He came to the district through the Teach for America program from Tennessee knowing nothing of Bridgeport.
“The first thing I notice was that most of my peers were white, most of my students were not,” said Vogelpohl, who is white.
Vogelpohl said he tries not to overcompensate.
“I try to meet everyone half way,” he said. “To make the material as engaging as possible and tailor lessons to ( my students) specifically.”
Bucheli, who came to the United States from Ecuador, said she was also surprised to find so few teachers of color when she taught at Harding High School. Now at Stamford High, she said it is not much different.
Baldwin- Muhammad said the state could attract more teachers of color if the Connecticut state certification process weren’t so excruciatingly hard.
“To the point that I almost said forget it,” she said. Baldwin- Muhammad grew up in Stratford but got her degree in Florida. She passed the state’s Praxis Test on the first try but then had to take additional courses she does not think make her a better teacher.
The group is aware of efforts being made, under Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson, to hire more teachers of color.
They say they are pleased the district now requires students to take a course in African American Studies, Latin American Studies or Perspectives on Race to graduate.
They look forward to a Sacred Heart University proposal to create a privately funded “Grow Your Own” program in the district.
And Sana Shah, outreach director for E4E, is working with the school board’s Males of Color Ad Hoc committee.
“There is an intersect to our work,” she said.