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Pittsburgh area school districts kick off work to recruit, retain teachers of color

Two teachers with tables behind.
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Jeannette City School District teachers Kiaira Jackson and Lauren Oliech (right) were among the teachers who gathered this week at the Equity Leadership Institute's kick-off.

With a teacher workforce that is more than 95% white, school districts in the region are strategizing ways to recruit and retain educators of color.

They met this week to kick off the second cohort of the Equity Leadership Institute, an 18-month program to help school leaders diversify their teaching staff. It is hosted by Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to cultivate teacher leaders.

Aaron Johnson, the nonprofit’s Pennsylvania program director, said increasing the number of teachers of color countywide requires intentional planning.

“Because this is not a linear process. It's not something that we just look at, check off the box,” Johnson said. “It’s really about purposely planning to look at impact.”

Research has shown that Black students who have at least one Black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

Yet many students in Allegheny County are likely to go through school without meeting even one Black teacher. While students of color make up roughly 40% of the county’s K-12 population, close to half of all school districts fail to employ even one Black teacher.

A report from Research for Action last year also found that the demographic gap between the area’s teachers and students was notably larger than that of Pennsylvania as a whole.

“[Districts] know that they want teachers of color — they want teachers in general, too,” Johnson said. “But how do we attract, retain, and recruit and support them through the process?”

That’s why Johnson is partnering with educators at Pittsburgh Public Schools, Woodland Hills, Cornell, Jeannette City, South Allegheny and Clairton to identify and implement new practices. Each serves a student body significantly more diverse than its staff.

At Jeannette City School District in Westmoreland County, where 14% of students are Black, kindergarten teacher Lauren Oliech is one of three teachers of color.

“We want our teaching staff to match our demographic of students so that all our students feel welcome and feel seen when they walk in our buildings,” she said.

The Equity Leadership Institute specifically engages teachers in this work, in part because they may stay longer at a school than their bosses will.

Principals left schools statewide at the highest-ever recorded rate between the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years, as did district superintendents.

While teachers have also left their classrooms at an unprecedented pace, the overall rate among teachers in Pennsylvania is half that of their administrative counterparts.

“We're the ones who are in it and we want to see the change,” said Desiree White-Price, a first grade teacher at Edgewood STEAM Academy. “If we're not doing it, who else will?”

Districts in the program’s first cohort implemented a variety of solutions, from working to improve how educators understand their students’ cultures and removing bias from hiring practices, to fostering bonds between teachers.

One member of that cohort, Wilkinsburg Borough School District music teacher Ashley Barnes, said determining the path forward required a look at the reasons why teachers were leaving and communicating that with administrators.

As part of that work, Barnes helped organize a day of team-building workshops for the district’s staff.

“You can't really help your students if you aren't a happy teacher,” she said. “So the 'why' for this whole overall program was to, in the long run, benefit our students. But how can we benefit our students if our teachers are not willing to put in the work? And how can we motivate our teachers to be willing to put in the work?”

Penn Hills assistant superintendent Dawn Golden was also part of the program’s first cohort. Her district recently hired its first Black principal.

“I think we're headed in the right direction,” Golden said. “But I think the important part is being intentional and recognizing the need.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.