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As St. Louis County classrooms become more diverse, teachers remain largely white

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 10, 2009 - As fifth graders cleared their desks and packed their book bags one recent afternoon at Bowles Elementary School in the Rockwood School District, their teacher, Edna Campbell, reminded herself once more, "This is the best move I ever made."

After 21 years, Campbell is still thankful for the day her curiosity led her to become an exchange/transfer teacher at Bowles, leaving her regular job at Marshall Elementary School in St. Louis.

The exchange/transfer system grew out of the St. Louis-St. Louis County voluntary desegregation program. Qualified city teachers like Campbell went to work for a year in county schools and got stipends ranging from $2,500 to $4,500, while qualified county teachers took similar jobs in city classrooms.

Campbell says one big reason she decided to stay was the presence of city children in Rockwood in the desegregation program.

"I grew up in St. Louis' West End, and my neighbors were black and white," she says. "But I didn't know what to expect when I came out here. I didn't know whether the parents would accept me. That didn't turn out to be a problem. At that time, I also felt some of those black children needed, in effect, to see themselves in me. So for that reason I stayed."

Campbell was gratified to be offered a permanent job at Bowles. She liked the district so well in fact that she eventually enrolled all four of her sons there. Since then, three have graduated from college, and the fourth one is a high school senior.

Does Teacher diversity matter?

St. Louis County districts yearn for more Edna Campbells. Over a decade after the teacher exchange program ended, the 16 predominantly white county school districts haven't had nearly as much success attracting minority teachers as they have in enrolling black students, many of them bused in as part of the desegregation program. Black student enrollment in these districts range from about 10 percent in Affton to 38 percent in Ritenour. Together, these two districts have more than 3,600 black students; Affton has one black teacher and Ritenour has 39. While some districts are striving to make their teaching staff reflect the racial makeup of their student bodies, not one comes close to reaching that goal.

According to figures supplied by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the racial and ethnic composition of the teaching staff in the 23 school districts in St. Louis County is: 8,457 white teachers; 1,264 black teachers; 53 Hispanic teachers; 44 Asian teachers; and 14 American Indian teachers.

Does it matter whether black, Hispanic or Asian children are taught by teachers from their own ethnic or racial backgrounds? The question is a lot more complex than it seems, says Gwen Packnett, director of the office of multicultural relations at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

On one hand, she says flatly, it doesn't matter; competent, inspiring teachers who are committed to the well-being of children can -- and do -- establish relationships of trust with students of all colors.

On the other hand, she knows of cases in which finding mentors who look like the students made a difference in the students' success.

She tells of one instance in which a student, who moved to a county school district, added, "what I did not get, what was missing, was the love." In his old city school, Packnett says, "It wasn't just 'turn to page 64.' It was, 'Robert, how are you today? What's been going on in your life? Let's see if you did the homework. What part did you not understand?' This student was saying that the nurturing element was so key to his feeling good about himself that he would have missed out completely had he not gotten that love from home."

Mehlville's assistant superintendent for human resources, Lisa Counts, says diversity matters because "our students relate well, often relate better, to people who look like them. That's important to us because we have a diverse community; we have African Americans, we have Asians, Bosnians. We have over 54 languages spoken in our student population. In a perfect world, wouldn't it be great to have teachers who represented all of that? Absolutely."

In Clayton, Associate Superintendent Sharmon Wilkinson says diversity is a goal not only for minorities but for white students. "When you think about some of the challenges we face, we all have to learn to work together," she said.

"We live in a global society and specifically for minority students, you want them to see people like me in the school district," adds Wilkinson. "We also want quality teachers who can work with all students. I think all school districts say their first goal is to find the best teachers we can, and in the context of that, you still want diversity in the teaching staff. In addition, we want all our teachers to help all students succeed."

Recruiting diverse teachers

When it comes to minority teachers, all districts compete for the same limited group, says Linda Holliday, a consultant working with the Webster Groves School District. "We're all swimming in the same pool, so that makes it interesting."

Realizing they all talk to the same job applicants, some districts banded together to sponsor a diversity jobs fair. A surprising thing happened at last year's fair at a hotel in Westport. About 1,000 prospects showed up -- but the event attracted more white teachers than minorities. Educators say that's a sign of the economic times: Fewer teachers are retiring, and new jobs aren't as plentiful as they were. That means that lots of teachers can't find jobs, a situation that doesn't bode well for diversity.

"We're a large district, but we hired only one elementary school teacher this year," says Patty Corum, deputy superintendent in the Fort Zumwalt District in O'Fallon, Mo.

In the Lindbergh School District, Associate Superintendent Rick Francis, decided the competition for minority applicants for upper level jobs was so stiff that the district should develop its own pool from within. He said he nurtured two such applicants to the point where they were ready to become principals. Because the district had no openings, though, both took jobs elsewhere, he says.

"So it's darned if you do and darned if you don't," Francis says.

Rockwood has taken a different approach to finding minority teachers, says Associate Superintendent Kelvin McMillin. "We look for the top teachers we can find. We used to do that by having as many people apply as possible. Now we're looking for people who can tell us who the top teachers are. The No. 1 thing still is finding the highest quality teachers, but we also know that, with the large number of minority students in the district, we have to have good role models, so we're trying to hit the best of both of those" objectives.

In an effort to hire more minority teachers, Maplewood Richmond Heights has put together an African-American Community Advisory Council. In the meantime, the district hopes to compensate for the relatively low number of black teachers by offering more training to sensitize district employees to working with a diverse student body.

"You have to start inside and work outward," says Karen Hall, the district's associate superintendent. "We're not where we want to be. But we're not in denial. We want to address this issue."

Ingrid Clark-Jackson, associate superintendent for human resources in the Hazelwood District, notes that even though her district has a greater number of minority teachers than most others in St. Louis County, it shares a common goal of wanting to see those numbers increase. Hazelwood is one of the region's largest districts, with a student body that's 67 percent African American. Right now, 28 percent of its teachers are minority. Clark-Jackson says she'd like to see that figure to rise to 35 percent.

She says the job market for teachers "is so competitive out here with everybody competing for diversity. So sometimes you lose out." She adds that the race of teachers "doesn't matter as long as the teachers build good relationships with the kids." But a minority teacher has some advantages, she says, because "you can say, 'you can do this because I've done this.' To be a black astronaut, you have to see one."

Compensating for lack of diversity

Many county districts say they try hard to create a positive learning experience for all students, especially minorities, in spite of the low percentage of minority teachers and role models.

"We're doing social justice training and we talk to staff and students about race," says Holliday, the consultant with Webster Groves. "It's not a hidden situation. That helps with the comfort level. It helps people understand differences, to understand things that may happen in a student's home, to help them feel comfortable with music or dress."

Valley Park is among the districts with the fewest minority teachers -- just one, a vivacious elementary school physical education teacher. Superintendent David Knes (right) says one handicap is the small size of the district: 120 teachers.

Knes hasn't given up on diversity, saying "it's good for students to see people like themselves in leadership positions." The district tries to make up for what it lacks in diversity by building closer relationship with students. For example, teachers are required to visit the homes of their students twice a year, he says.

"It helps people feel welcome and feel they are part of the district," Knes says.

In Valley park, one out of 120

The lone African-American teacher in Valley Park is Latonya Davis, 30, a product of the city-county desegregation program. After college, Davis worked for Rockwood. She has been in Valley Park for five years. It isn't uncommon to find her getting to know students in unusual ways. She takes them to movies, attends their sporting events and joins them for occasional rides on the go carts at Incredible Pizza in south county. She stresses that she does things for all of her students, not just the African Americans.

"I can relate to almost all of them. It's not easy. I mentor a lot of them. Being the only African-American teacher out here helps the district because the kids can relate to me, can talk to me because they see I'm like them."

On the other hand, she says, white teachers make good role models, too, citing one teacher who guided her when she was in the desegregation program. She recently emailed that teacher, recounting how she had told the teaching staff about her. The teacher helped Davis buy a uniform for cheerleading because she couldn't afford it. "But most of all, I told the staff that she had told me I was going to college. She didn't ask me; she told me. And I went to college and grad school."

Davis says the issue of diversity cuts both ways. Black children can help themselves by moving out of their comfort level, she says.

"I tell them to get to know white kids. Make friends with them. I was a cheerleader, I ran track, and instead of taking a cab home late at night after an event, I'd stay the night out in the county with white friends.

"I tell the students you never know how building a relationship might help you in the future."