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How teacher diversity is being addressed in Metro East schools

East St. Louis District 189 Counselor Tamiko Timberson welcomes a returning student on Officer Elementary’s first day of school in August.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
East St. Louis District 189 Counselor Tamiko Timberson welcomes a returning student on Officer Elementary’s first day of school in August.

Editor's note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat.

Decades of research show that students being taught by a diverse teacher workforce improves educational outcomes, especially for students of color.

But despite some progress in recent years, teacher diversity in Illinois — like across the country — continues to significantly lag the growing diversity of the student population.

That’s according to a recent report by Advance Illinois, a bipartisan education policy and advocacy organization, that was the topic of conversation at a November event in Collinsville.

In the 2021-22 school year, 17% of teachers in Illinois were Black, Latino, Asian or another race or ethnicity — a modest increase from 14% a decade ago — while over half of pupils were students of color, according to the report, which relied on data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

What’s more, the percentages of Black, Latino, Asian and other teachers of color were less than half the percentage of students of the same race.

While the percentage of Latino teachers has improved over the past decade from 5 to 8%, the percentage of Black teachers has declined from 7 to 6%.

Early stages in the pipeline — like teacher preparation program enrollees and new teachers — are more diverse than in the later stages, but racial and ethnic disparities remain at every step.

Meanwhile, there’s a “multitude of research findings … around the significance of having a teaching force that reflects the students in the room,” said Nate Williams, an associate professor and chair of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s Department of Teaching and Learning.

He is also a member of Advance Illinois’ Advisory Group, teaches math at East St. Louis Charter High School and holds a doctorate in urban education studies from Indiana University Indianapolis. Since becoming department chair at SIUE, his research has shifted to addressing and growing the educator pipeline.

A growing body of research shows that students being taught by teachers of the same demographic improves short-term outcomes like test scores, attendance and suspension rates. More recent studies have ventured to explore how same-race teachers affect long-term outcomes like graduation rates and college enrollment.

For example, a 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that when Black students have one Black teacher by third grade, they are 13% more likely to graduate high school and 19% more likely to enroll in college.

The study’s authors suggest these improved outcomes could be partly due to Black teachers using culturally-relevant pedagogy — which Williams explained is when teachers use content, images and sounds “that are an access point for diverse learners” and ensures students “can see themselves within the content that they’re learning” — and partly due to the “role-model effect,” which allows Black students to see their Black teachers as role models and advocates for them.

Teacher diversity has wider benefits for all students, too.

“They’re able to see themselves and also people not like them at all so that they can be more effective participants in a society that is beautifully diverse outside of their own community,” said 2023 Illinois Teacher of the Year Briana Morales, who teaches English at Gordon Bush Alternative Center in East St. Louis School District 189 and spoke at the original launch of the Advance Illinois report in Chicago in October. She is also currently getting her doctorate in education policy, organization and leadership from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“When we get to share and we get to come to a more complete understanding of what the fullness of the world can look like, when we embrace the diversity of the folks who inhabit it, we are preparing kids for [the] real world,” Morales said. “But if we don’t have a staff that reflects the diversity of the rest of the world, we’re sending kids out into the world effectively with an incomplete worldview, which taints their abilities in so many ways.”

Williams said research over time connects the lack of teacher diversity today to the history of the formation of education in the United States as well as the realities of many students’ educational experiences in which they have historically been disenfranchised and underserved.

“I think it’s misguided to think that the antidote or the reason is just like a structural or a financial component,” he said. “It’s much more robust than that.”

“You have to think: ‘if I went to a school that didn’t value me, I had teachers that didn’t look like me, how could I imagine myself in that space?’” he added.

Many students go through their education never seeing a teacher who shares any of their identities, Morales said, which can deter them from pursuing teaching as a career “because they never saw themselves reflected in it.”

“That has huge implications for recruiting and retaining the next generation of teachers of color,” she said.

What's being done statewide and in the Metro East?

Starting with the 2022-23 school year, teacher preparation programs in the state have been required to have targets and strategies for recruiting and retaining candidates of color.

The state also has the long-standing Minority Teachers of Illinois Scholarship to financially help students of color in teacher preparation programs, who are disproportionately affected by the high cost of college.

State funding for the scholarship has increased significantly in recent years. In fiscal year 2023, the state more than doubled its appropriation from $1.9 to $4.2 million and expanded eligibility. The 2024 appropriation nearly doubled again to $8 million.

In February 2022, the state board of education announced it would allocate $2 million in COVID-19-related funding to launch affinity groups throughout the state — including in southwestern Illinois based at East St. Louis 189 — to help recruit and retain teachers of color by providing them with space to discuss issues they face locally and make recommendations for how to address them.

Morales co-facilitated the first iteration of one of the East St. Louis affinity groups during the 2022-23 school year for Black, Latinx and special education teachers.

“Educators are each other’s greatest asset,” she said. “Oftentimes when educators feel that they are alone in their working environments, that can also deter them from either staying in their own individual school or larger district or in the profession overall.”

She said one of the goals of the affinity groups is to provide safe spaces for people to network, discuss the challenges they are experiencing in their department, school, district or region, and then figure out ways to combat those issues to retain teachers of color and bring more into the fold.

For example, the affinity group she led last year conducted a study in several metro-east districts. It found that burnout was a huge issue for teachers of color and that many teachers of color experienced microaggressions and hostile work environments as a result of their identities, deterring them from staying.

“Teacher wellness specifically for teachers of color is imperative if we want to take care of who they are so that they can continue caring for our most precious assets, which are our children,” Morales said.

The group presented the study’s findings to District 189 alongside recommendations related to teacher wellness and a district-run affinity group if the state board’s program doesn’t continue.

A second iteration of the affinity groups is currently underway, but state funding concludes at the end of this school year. Many who have been witness to the impact of the affinity groups are pushing for the state board to extend funding for additional years, Morales said.

Some teacher preparation programs have similar spaces.

Williams said SIUE’s School of Education, Health and Human Behavior has Project TEAM — Transformative Education Achievement Model — as a support system for students of color in the school. This model began at Indiana University in 1996 to increase the number of students of color who enter teacher preparation programs and become licensed teachers in the state.

Project TEAM at SIUE provides a space for students of color to critically reflect as well as professional development and peered tutoring to help them navigate the teaching program and profession.

“It’s a safe haven for them,” Williams said.

The concept of “grow-your-own” initiatives have proliferated across the country in recent decades and many Metro East districts like East St. Louis 189, Collinsville 10, Bethalto 8, Sparta 140 and more have implemented them. These programs are often partnerships between universities and high schools designed to get students into the educator pipeline to address both the teacher shortage and diversity.

Kelly Smits is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelly Smits is the education and environment reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.