2010-09-30 / Local & State

Lack Of Black Teachers Rued In Western PA Schools

By Chris Ramirez

PITTSBURGH (AP) – It’s 11:22 a.m. in Samantha Utley’s second-grade class, and lunch is just minutes away.

Yet, instead of watching the clock, the students’ attention follows Utley as she casually paces the classroom.

“Let me see your planner,’’ she calls out to a young girl dressed in a red shirt, a school color in Duquesne City Schools. The child hands over her journal, a spreadsheet-like booklet that chronicles her daily lessons, and the two talk briefly.

Then each grins and, just like that, they’ve made a connection.

Utley is a prized, and increasingly rare, commodity in education – and her bridge-building skill is only one reason. The other is, she’s black.

About 9 percent of the nation’s 6.5 million teachers are black, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although the percentage is slightly higher in Pittsburgh, where blacks make up roughly 15 percent of schools’ faculty, education experts fear the lack of black teachers could lead to academic decline among minority students, particularly those in poorer, predominantly black districts.

“Black teachers, they’re just harder to find,’’ said Carolyn L. Faggioli, vice president of Penn Hills school board and chair of its diversity committee. “When we have applicants who are qualified, we look at them. But we’re just not getting them.’’

Black men are in particular demand. They account for fewer than 2 percent of the nation’s teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“It’s not that white teachers can’t teach black students and black students can’t learn from white teachers,’’ said Larry E. Davis, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems and dean of its School of Social Work. “We just know that people learn better from people who are like them and can relate to their experiences.’’

Government agencies are barred from recruiting or hiring employees based solely on race or gender. Still, many districts believe they’ve made progress by adding minority teachers. Academics say that a teacher’s race alone doesn’t determine whether minority students succeed, but that students might have a better shot at success if more people of color teach them.

“It’s always great to see role models who are identical to one’s self in any environment,’’ said Kimetta Hairston, president of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association for Multicultural Education. “Children need teachers who care about them and who respect their cultural and learning differences.’’

In Pittsburgh Public Schools, for example, 85 percent of the 2,032 teachers are white. Most of the district’s other teachers, though not all, are black. Yet, blacks accounted for 56.3 percent of the district’s 26,100 students last year. White students made up 39 percent of its student body.

Fewer black graduates are becoming teachers, discouraged mainly by low pay, according to a report in July by the National Center for Education Statistics. The starting salary for a teacher in Woodland Hills, for example, is $37,250 with a bachelor’s degree, or $38,000 with a master’s degree.

By contrast, an entry-level budget analyst can make up to $47,710 a year, and an insurance claims adjuster can earn $40,640 with no experience, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

Pennsylvania ranked 10th in the nation in teacher pay in 2007, the most recent data available from the American Federation of Teachers. At that time, the average teaching salary in the state was $54,977. By comparison, the averages in Ohio and West Virginia were $53,536 and $40,534, respectively. California teachers were paid best, earning $63,640 on average.

Largely black districts, such as Wilkinsburg, Duquesne, Penn Hills and Woodland Hills, last week awaited results of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests administered in March. Performance on standardized tests factors heavily into how state and federal agencies distribute money to school districts, and that can help pay for additional teachers.

Preliminary data released in August by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit showed the Duquesne City Schools District met state standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but Duquesne Education Center, which houses grades K-8, did not. The intermediate unit manages daily operations for the district, which in 2007 closed its high school.

Districtwide, 362 of 424 students enrolled in Duquesne schools are black. Among the district’s 48 teachers, Utley is one of seven blacks.

Still, a teacher’s race matters less than his or her ability to connect with students, said Davaun Barnett, principal of the center.

“By that premise, only an African-American doctor can heal African-American patients, or an African-American mechanic can fix an African-American’s car, and we know that’s not true,’’ he said. “It’s all about building relationships with students.’’

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