Rason Conner has almost exclusively been taught by white, female teachers.
The Brashear High School senior can only recall having two black male teachers, both in high school. His relationships with those two men were challenging and Conner said it took time to warm up to them. Now, they’re two of his favorite teachers.
Conner is African-American and the African-American men in his life have helped him envision what he wants to do after high school.
“They always tell you the truth but make it motivational, too,” he said. “That’s someone I want to grow up to be.”
Conner’s experience isn’t unique. More than 85 percent of Pittsburgh Public School teachers are white, and a majority are women. That's compared to the 53 percent of students who are black.
The disparity exists across the state and country and has been a persistent issue education leaders and lawmakers have grappled with for decades.
Pennsylvania has one of the highest racial disparities between teachers and students in the country.
Only about six percent of teachers are people of color, while students of color make up 33 percent of enrollment, according to a recent analysis from Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based research group focused on education. While 14 percent of students are black, only 4 percent of teachers are.
Research shows that students like Conner might be more engaged in classrooms and have a greater chance of graduating if their teachers looked like them and had similar lived experiences.
Conner is a successful student. He’s been accepted to multiple colleges. He’s not sure which one he will attend or what he will study, but he is sure that he wants to work with kids.
For the last four years, the senior has participated in a program the district hopes will bring more diverse candidates into the field. Conner and nearly 100 other students are learning to become teachers.
Brashear High School offers a Teaching Academy Magnet Program. The program started in 1989 at PPS’s former Langley High School. Students across the city can apply through the lottery system to join the program. They take courses on teaching and classroom management alongside other more traditional courses like science and math.
The students spend their senior year assisting an elementary school teacher. They grade papers, tutor students and even present lessons.
This year’s graduating class is made up entirely of African-American students.
District leaders know it needs more teachers of color. That’s one of the reasons it started the program. But, leaders also say it needs more teachers in general.
Fewer students are seeking degrees in education in Pennsylvania colleges and universities. State data show the number of newly-issued in-state teaching certificates has dropped by 71 percent since 2009.
The state’s education department has created new programs to try to combat the loss. This fall eight state universities created programs to recruit and retain more educators with new state grants. Indiana University of Pennsylvania used its funding to pay for living expenses for students in residencies in the Pittsburgh school district. The state considers PPS a high-needs district with high rates of minority students, and high rates of students in poverty.
Pittsburgh Public Schools has noticed the teacher shortage in certain hard-to-staff areas like science, math and special education.
Kimberly Saffron, the principal of Brashear High School, said she has seen the teaching shortfall in her building. She said people with degrees in those disciplines can find higher paying work outside of a classroom.
“We have a lot of work we need to do as a society and as a country about how we value educators. Because we don’t value educators in this country. They aren’t paid well enough, personally, and we don’t value the profession,” she said.
But, she thinks teaching is a calling. She doesn’t think it’s something students should be pressured to do.
Creating a pipeline
Pittsburgh Public Schools doesn’t have data to show if the Teaching Magnet Program is creating more teachers. Leaders don’t know how many students go on to teach.
Brashear also isn’t the first district to experiment with a “grow your own” teacher program. Other districts across the country have used them as a way to ensure the teaching population better reflects the diversity of the student population. But for all of the programs in existence, there is not a body of research assessing the effectiveness of the model as a whole.
Hannah McCarthy, the Brashear Teaching Academy coordinator, has anecdotal evidence. She has a long list of text message threads in her phone from former students who have gone on to teach.
McCarthy is a vice president for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers union. The union drafted a memorandum of understanding with Superintendent Anthony Hamlet to better incentivize and track students.
Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the PFT President, said the process to approve the memo has been stalled because of changes in the Human Resources department.
If the MOU is approved it would ensure students from the teaching academy a position with the district if they maintain a high grade point average throughout college.
“I’m worried about the teacher shortage in all areas of teaching,” Esposito-Visgitis said. “This could be a great draw in all areas and bring back kids that are familiar with schools and our areas.”
Students aren’t required to commit to teaching by participating in the program, but McCarthy and Saffron hope it helps identify more students who feel called to teach.
Conner doesn’t think he’ll be one of them, though he says if the program taught him anything it’s that he wants to work with children in some capacity.