Berkeley schools need more teachers of color

CITY AFFAIRS: The Berkeley Unified School District must listen to community members’ pleas to improve racial diversity

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Kelly Baird/Staff

At a recent BUSD meeting, dozens of teachers pleaded with the board to increase the racial diversity among the district’s teaching staff.

“When I was going to school, it was the teachers of color who made a difference in my life,” said Amanda Cardno, an educational specialist at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, during public comment. “Knowing someone in your room looks like you makes a big difference.”

The call to action, driven by members of the Teachers of Color Network — an organization aimed at increasing the hiring and retention of teachers of color — deserves a swift, dedicated response.

Berkeley school district teachers mostly work with students of color — yet only one-third of the district’s teachers are people of color, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Countless studies show that students of color perform significantly better when they are taught by teachers of color. Surrounded by teachers who look like them, students are less likely to feel unheard, belittled, alone or underrepresented.

But when the percentage of Black students is nearly three times greater than the percentage of Black teachers within the district, the school district fails to create an environment conducive to exploring and learning for its students. BUSD needs to ensure it is making a serious effort to improve the recruitment and retention of Black and brown teachers.

Realizing these efforts is especially important at Berkeley High School, where anti-Black sentiments have recently and publicly flared. Last fall, several BHS students started a racist and discriminatory Instagram account, and recently, BHS students have expressed concern that the school’s small program structure has caused segregation and incited racist attitudes.

The BUSD board and staff should work hard to implement the network’s suggestions quickly. There’s no reason that simple changes, such as starting the hiring process earlier, couldn’t be implemented immediately. Even BUSD board member Judy Appel acknowledged that the delayed hiring process results in a loss of applicants from people of color. Financially vulnerable people may need to secure a job sooner than Berkeley’s later-than-usual hiring season allows.

And while the district has already taken steps to address the lack of diversity in its teaching staff, these efforts are not enough. In November 2015, BUSD hired a specialist to set goals to recruit and retain teachers of color. But one year later, the number of teachers who are people of color went up less than 1 percent, and 67 percent of BUSD teachers were still white.

Many teachers of color have expressed the desire to leave BUSD because they feel isolated or unsupported by administrators and parents, according to Gloria Muñoz-Hughes, a Teachers of Color Network co-facilitator who spoke at last week’s BUSD meeting. If the district can’t even support its current employees of color, how can it possibly expect to hire and retain more?

And none of these attempts can make a significant difference when teachers cannot afford to live in Berkeley. The board has already explored a proposal to build affordable housing for low-income teachers; it should expedite research into the project and get the necessary funding measure on the ballot as soon as possible to create these vital homes for a more diverse teaching staff.

If the school district’s intention is to increase diversity, then it has to make a concerted effort to enact programs and plans that will allow and encourage more teachers of color to join the district.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.