2018-10-23
Story

Holli Coburn heads to Smith Elementary’s annual field day in May 2018. She is among a small number of Black teachers in Denver Public Schools.

Photo by Joe Mahoney

By Chandra Thomas Whitfield

Holli Coburn remembers the day a troubled student, an African-American boy with soft brown eyes and an infectious smile, first showed up in her fourth-grade classroom. He was 8 years old, could barely read and was known for acting out in class. Still, Coburn, a teacher at Smith Elementary in Denver’s Park Hill community who describes her approach as “tough but loving,” welcomed the challenge.

Coburn worked with him at school every day, both in small groups and one-on-one. To show she cared beyond the classroom, the married mother of two also took time out to attend her student’s football practices and a basketball game. Those personal gestures, she says, helped her begin chipping away at what she suspected were his underlying issues: chronic low self-esteem and a severe lack of confidence.

“He was very rude, disrespectful and defiant at first, but I would spend a lot of time talking to him about ‘appropriateness,’” recalls Coburn, 42, who at the time was one of only two African-American teachers at Smith, which serves mostly Black and Latino students. “Sometimes [when he’d get frustrated] I’d look him in the eye and just hold his little face and say, ‘I believe in you. I’m not giving up on you.’”

By the end of the school year, the student’s reading skills and behavior had both dramatically improved. They bonded in the process and remain close today. Coburn says she believes being a Black teacher helped her more easily connect with her student.

“The kid who showed up [last] school year is very different from the one I started with,” says Coburn, now the only Black licensed teacher at Smith. “Now, he is able to read aloud with confidence and articulate his thoughts in writing; that was something he could not do before. Every morning he [would greet] me with a big hug. I believe that is what happens when you’re able to build a rapport—it’s the foundation for success.”

Nationwide, more children of color than non-Hispanic whites are enrolled in the nation’s public schools. White students still make up more than half of public school enrollment in Colorado. But as the population of students of color increases here, the state is experiencing a critical shortage of racially diverse teachers.

Across the state, around 4.6 percent of students in the 2017-18 school year were Black, but only 1.5 percent of teachers, according to state education department data. The diversity gap is even more pronounced among Latinos; around 34 percent of students were Latino, but only 8 percent of teachers.

By comparison, 53 percent of students in the state were white, but white teachers represented 88 percent of the teacher workforce. Most teachers of color are concentrated in a handful of urban school districts. And among Colorado’s 178 school districts, state data shows that nearly 150 of them did not have a single Black teacher in the 2017-18 school year.

State education officials say they are exploring ways to recruit and retain more teachers of color.

In Denver Public Schools (DPS) in the 2017-18 school year, around 76 percent of students were students of color, while 73 percent of teachers were white, district spokesperson Jessie Smiley said. Blacks made up 13 percent of the student body, but only 3.7 percent of teachers, while Latinos represented 55 percent of students but only 19 percent of teachers.

The district said their latest hires, for the school year that started in August, are their most diverse yet. Still, just 232 of the 765 new educators are people of color.

Other Denver metro districts have stark diversity gaps, too. For example, in Aurora Public Schools, there are more Black students than white (19 versus 15 percent), but more than 80 percent of its teachers are white, according to 2017-18 school year data. Aurora Schools spokesperson Corey Christiansen says there was a “significant increase” in the number of Black and Hispanic licensed staff hired for the 2018-19 school year; still, 81 percent of the new hires were white.

Along with raising equal employment concerns, researchers have found the teacher diversity gap may adversely impact educational outcomes for Black students and other students of color, who studies suggest benefit most from being taught by educators of the same race.

A 2017 study published by the Institute of Labor Economics found that having just one Black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade reduced a low-income Black boy’s probability of dropping out of high school by 39 percent. And if a low-income Black student has a Black teacher, especially of the same gender, the researchers found they are more likely to plan to attend a four-year college. This impact was especially strong for boys.

Some research has found that implicit racial bias makes non-Black teachers less likely to recommend Black students for "gifted" programs—even when they have comparable test scores.

There may be health consequences for low-performing students; studies have connected poor health outcomes to people with lower educational attainment, especially among people of color and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. In Colorado, graduation rates for Black, Hispanic and American Indian students are much lower than they are for white students.

A state bill passed in 2014 required the Colorado Department of Education to study the shortage of teachers of color and develop ways to recruit, develop and retain more of them. Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), who sponsored Colorado House Bill 14-1175, has said the legislation was inspired in part by an African-American student in metro Denver’s Cherry Creek district, who had written to her principal asking why her school had no Black teachers. The student, Aliyah Cook, told lawmakers that the lack of “role models” who look like her at school often made her “feel a little discouraged.”

The resulting report released in 2014 found significant room for improvement in Colorado’s diverse-teacher recruitment and retention strategies. Some of the biggest barriers included negative perceptions of the teaching profession among educators of color, low teacher salaries, barriers for students of color in attending and completing college, financial barriers associated with college, licensure tests, and cultural competence and relocation concerns.

Successful solutions, the report concluded, must focus on each of those areas; some ideas include creating more financial incentives, expanding teacher development and mentoring programs for teachers of color, creating more partnerships with institutions that serve people of color, and providing cultural competency training to all teachers and administrators.

The 2014 report demonstrated that “it was crystal clear that Colorado needed to make changes in our approach to diversifying our teacher workforce,” said Colleen O’Neil, who heads teacher recruitment efforts for the Colorado Department of Education.

Tameka Brigham, who contributed to the report, says the diversity gap among teachers in Colorado creates a barrier for students of color “to have natural connections—an inability to see themselves in the curriculum and in leadership.” Brigham, a former charter school teacher and DPS chief of staff, is now the chief of family and community engagement for the school district.

“The research shows that there is a real benefit when students see teachers who look like themselves,” Brigham says, referring to national studies. “There’s often a feeling that this teacher has their best interest at heart.”

Frank Lee, a reading specialist in the Colorado Springs school district who is African-American, says he believes a “cultural disconnect” with white teachers often contributes to lingering achievement gap issues for students of color, especially Black males.

“These students are looking for Black leaders in the schools,” says Lee. “They want to see powerful Black men in the school, and when they don’t, they check out and turn to other things. They’re constantly getting in trouble at school; they feel powerless and they want a sense of empowerment from the leaders at their school.” The educator, who graduated from a Colorado Springs high school, says he never experienced having a Black male teacher until he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta.

It’s not only Black students who benefit from diversity in their teachers, says Paul Clifton, a teacher at McGlone Academy, a Denver elementary school located in the northeast Denver community of Montbello.

Clifton, who is biracial but identifies as Black, says we do students of all races and ethnicities a “disservice” when they’re only exposed to mostly one race or gender. “Why? Because that’s the world. The world is diverse,” he says.

Contributing Factors

Negative perceptions of the teaching industry, inflated higher-education costs, a lack of affordable housing and low pay are likely all contributing to Colorado’s recruitment and retention of teachers of any race or ethnicity.

Colorado teachers from several districts walked out in April to protest their low pay, which almost certainly contributes to people leaving the profession. Colorado educators in 2016 earned about 15 percent less than they did in 1999, when adjusted for inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Colorado’s affordable housing shortage is especially problematic for teachers. Coburn commutes to Denver from Aurora, where she and her family found a larger house for less money.

“After 20 years, I’m pretty high on the pay scale, and still can’t afford to buy a house in Park Hill where I teach,” she says. “It truly is a shame.”

Teachers of color face other barriers, too. Black teachers are more likely than their white counterparts to be placed in high-need, economically disadvantaged urban schools with limited resources and support, research has found.

Lisette Partelow, director of K-12 strategic initiatives for the left-leaning advocacy group Center for American Progress, says that as a result, many educators report high levels of job dissatisfaction. “Many struggle with a lack of resources and just not having someone to talk to,” she says.

A 2016 report on Black student and teacher experiences, commissioned by DPS, found that many Black teachers say they feel left out of decision-making roles and passed over for promotions.

“We have found that our African-American education leaders tend to get lower scores on evaluations, and there’s definitely a belief among them—we’re looking closely at the data now to confirm it—that they are being fired at higher rates,” says Sharon Bailey, a diversity, equity and inclusion program manager for DPS and a former Denver Board of Education member, who spearheaded the report. “We believe that this has a lot to do with racism and implicit bias, which we consider to be very problematic.”

Bailey believes DPS is working in the right direction for more teacher diversity, and improving the experiences of teachers of color in DPS. Still, some teachers described a feeling of stark isolation.

“African-Americans in DPS are invisible, silenced and dehumanized, especially if you are passionate, vocal and unapologetically black. We can’t even be advocates for our kids. It feels a lot like being on a [slave] plantation… there is a lot of fear and black folks are pitted against each other,” one DPS teacher was quoted in the 2016 report as saying.

Efforts to Change

In order to increase teacher diversity, state education officials have discussed creating financial incentives for new hires, creating partnerships with historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions that primarily serve people of color, and expanding mentorship programs for existing teachers, said O’Neil, the Colorado Department of Education official.

Colorado colleges and universities are also working to make a difference, too. The University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and Human Development, for example, participates in Pathways2Teaching, a concurrent enrollment program designed to encourage 11th and 12th grade students of color to explore the teaching profession.

Entering its ninth year, Pathways2Teaching has served about 650 students from Denver metro-area school districts; about 95 percent are students of color and 38 percent are young men of color. Its program director, Margarita Bianco, said many of its graduates go on to enroll in teacher education programs or related areas, such as social work.

Some ways that DPS is working to address the teacher diversity gap are through teacher mentoring programs and partnering with Make Your Mark, a joint venture with select charter schools and the City of Denver focused on recruiting diverse teachers nationwide to local schools. Launched in 2016, the effort has included inviting educators of color for a three-day recruitment trip to Denver that included a schools tour and job fair. The initiative recruits candidates at colleges and universities that primarily serve students of color, including in Pueblo, Chicago and Puerto Rico. According to its website, the program seeks to recruit “black and Latino educators” to “serve as advocates, as guides, [and] as role models.”

Bailey says the African-American Equity Task Force born out of her 2016 Black teacher report has also assembled a “Wisdom Team” made up of educators and community stakeholders. The team is working with DPS leadership on studying Black student and teacher concerns, including examining the hiring and firing processes for signs of bias. It has suggested a requirement that all teachers take a four-hour training on culturally responsive teaching—currently only required for new teachers.

Smith Elementary parent Monica Walker says she welcomes more teacher diversity in Colorado because Black teachers like Coburn have pushed her 10-year-old son harder academically—and he’s responded positively to their heightened expectations. (He’s not the previously mentioned student with whom Coburn worked.)

“You can tell a difference, and I think the kids [do], too,” Walker says. “I think [Black teachers] take more time with the students and show that they care; they try to help the African-American students succeed. We need more people to be up at these schools [doing that].”

Her son Clint Jr., now a fifth grader, agrees.

“[Mrs. Coburn] is strict and she pushes us, but she’s nice, too,” he says. “I feel like I’ve grown and gotten better in certain areas like math, reading and science. She makes me try harder.”

Chandra Thomas Whitfield produced this article as part of the 2018 Education Writers Association Fellowship program.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield
Print, broadcast and multimedia journalist
Denver, Colorado