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Black educators convene, strategize amidst departure of Black teachers in Allegheny County

Women in a crowd raise their hands.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
Allegheny County educators raise their hands in response to a prompt from discussion leaders during a meeting on new research that showed Black teachers were leaving the region at high rates.

Educators say action must be taken at the state and district levels to recruit and retain Black teachers, who research shows are leaving the classroom at rates far higher than their white peers.

The call was relayed Tuesday at a gathering inside the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, where over two dozen Black educators from across western Pennsylvania gathered for a teach-in hosted by Research for Action.

The night’s discussion underscored findings from a report the organization published last fall, which detailed why the number of Black teachers in Allegheny County has sharply declined over the past decade.

“We're losing people every day in our schools,” said Dawn Gordon, principal of Pittsburgh King PreK-8. “We're exhausted.”

Gordon spoke about the need for change alongside Jason Rivers, Director of Narrative Transformation, Conflict Resolution & Violence Prevention at Pittsburgh Public Schools, Wayne Jones CEO of Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship and Danielle Smiley, an educator at Propel Schools.

The conversation was moderated by Kathy Wilson Humphrey, the first Black president of Carlow University.

“I lived in the inner city and all of our teachers were Black,” Humphrey said. “And those Black teachers are why I'm standing here. Because they made me believe that I could do it.”

A man hugs a woman at a table with microphones and panelists.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
From left: Danielle Smiley, an educator at Propel Schools, Dawn Gordon, principal of Pittsburgh King PreK-8, and Wayne Jones CEO of Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship.

Researchers, however, found that Black teachers in Allegheny County today face heavier workloads, feelings of isolation and racial microaggressions from their peers.

While Allegheny County’s Black population — not including the City of Pittsburgh — increased by close to 8% between 2013 and 2021, the number of Black teachers countywide dropped by nearly the same amount.

As of the 2022-2023 school year, Allegheny County’s teacher workforce was more than 95% white. A Penn State study last year found that, after the 2021-2022 school year, Black educators across the Commonwealth were more than twice as likely as their white peers to leave the profession.

The report from Research for Action, “Small but Mighty”, found that these trends are due, in part, to a lack of support and inadequate pay.

A woman smiles with joy at a podium.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
"Those Black teachers are why I'm standing here," said Kathy Wilson Humphrey, the first Black president of Carlow University.

Jones confirmed these issues, though he added that the more Black educators who stay, the better the outcome will be for everyone.

“Know that, in the long term, the result is going to be more empowered young people and individuals who believe in themselves, and therefore will have triple or double the size of this room of people who look like us — Black educators,” Jones said.

“That’s how we change the landscape.”

Educators speaking alongside Jones also recommended changes to the state’s credentialing criteria and additional training opportunities for paraprofessionals and students, as well as wage increases for junior teachers.

Sean Means, a teacher at Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Academy, said recruiting and retaining more Black teachers will require leaders to address teachers’ salaries.

“We have to pay people more,” Means said. “Until people actually realize that, I can't encourage my own students to get into [teaching] without knowing that they're going to be taken care of financially earlier in their careers.”

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.