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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Charles King remembers in his third year teaching a parent called him aside and told him to be more authentic, to let some of his roots show because the black students in that urban Houston school needed to know he was one of them.
The encounter changed the way that King, now 39 and the head of a Kansas City teacher training program, would deal with students the rest of his teaching career. For the first time he realized the importance "and the power" of being a black man in a classroom.
Last month, the Urban League of Greater Kansas City's report on "The State of Black Kansas City" concluded that schools here are "still separate and unequal" and called into question the lack of men of color teaching in district and charter school classrooms.
"Studies have found that teachers of color can improve the educational experience of all students, and compared with their white peers, they are more likely to have higher expectations of students of color, confront issues of racism, develop more trusting relationships with students (particularly those who share a cultural background) and that teachers of color tend to serve as advocates and cultural brokers," the Urban League said.
It also said that some of the latest research found that assigning a black male student to a black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades significantly — nearly 30% — reduced the probability that the child would drop out of high school. It's a statistic of great interest to public school leaders who for decades have searched for ways to improve the graduation rate for minority students and close their achievement gap with white schoolmates.
"The impact that black male teachers have on student outcomes is leaps and bounds above any other demographic group," King told The Kansas City Star.
So now the race to hire men of color as teachers is on, said Charles Foust, superintendent in Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, where black men make up 2.5% of the 2,038 teachers and Hispanic men comprise 1.3%.
It's not just a Kansas City area phenomenon. Education experts say it has been well documented that black students, who are regularly cited for lagging behind academically, perform better when taught by teachers of the same race.
"Kids do better when they're taught by teachers who look like them. That's just the way it is," said David Kretschmer, an education professor at California State University, Northridge.
Kretschmer helps lead the Future Minority Male Teachers Across California Project, which for the last three years has been recruiting, preparing and retaining male teachers of color at the elementary level throughout the state. "We need more men of color in American classrooms, period," he said. "There is a cultural impact and it's shared. A teacher of color has an easier time understanding the cultural background of the students in their classroom."
Yet more than 80% of teachers in U.S. public school classrooms are white, and most — 77% — are female. Among the other 20% who are teachers of color, black men are a mere 2%, even though nearly half of the nation's schoolchildren are students of color, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And by 2024 it's estimated that children of color will make up 56% of the student population.
Of the more than 66,000 teachers in Missouri this year, only 1.2% are black men. Black females fair better at 3.7%. But the portion who are Hispanic — male or female — is less than 1%. In Kansas, the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that of the state's more than 36,000 teachers, more than 95% are white and 1.6 % are Hispanic. The portions that are black are so small they aren't even quantified.
Having a black male teacher flips the script for black male teens, said Pernell Barrett, a 17-year-old senior at Center High School. Three years ago, 12% of the teachers in the Center district were black, 3% of them black men. This school year, 16% of the teachers are black, and 4% are black men. The district, like others across the area, is looking to increase those numbers.
Barrett remembers his first encounter with his English teacher, Troy Butler, one of Center's black male teachers. "It was my freshman year," Barrett said. "I didn't know him, but he came up to me and was like, how are you doing, how's your family? He just kept it real. It was like he just looked at me and he saw me, you know?" Even though Barrett has good relationships with most of his white teachers, it wasn't the same.
That hallway encounter, his teacher said, was like the brother to brother nod he says happens when two black men from anywhere pass each other any time, any place. It is an unspoken familiarity that Butler says goes a long way in a school setting between teacher and student or principal and student to improve the performance of young black male students.
"I think that the more that our faculty and our staff look like the kids that they serve the better it is for everybody," Butler said. "Those relationships can help other teachers. Those relationships can help all the students. Even the white students like having someone who is an authority figure who does not look like them."
"Representation matters," said Edgar Palacios, president and CEO of the Latinx Collaborative, which has focused on diversity in education. "All the data shows that teachers of color tend to have higher expectations of students of color. But this is not just about students of color. Because all students have better education outcomes when surrounded by a more diverse population of teachers."
Seneca Benjamin, 17, is another one of Butler's students at Center High School. He aspires to become an engineer and said his inspiration to be successful came from watching the four black male teachers he's had since elementary school. "I look at someone who looks like me and I see myself. I see that they came from the same place I came from, from the hood, the ghetto, and they are doing something. They are not those guys I see on the news who did a crime," Benjamin said. "It is good to see that people have made it out."
King, whose Kansas City Teacher Residency program trains people switching careers to work in classrooms, explains it this way: "I almost liken it to when people saw President Obama elected for the first time," he said. "More black children believed that 'Now I can be president than ever before.' That's what we're talking about. When you don't see that enough in your community, whether it be at home or at school, kids don't believe it's for them.
"Sure they hear it, right? But to them it's like, 'I hear you telling me I can go to college. I hear you telling me I could be academically successful, but there's no one in my school building, outside of, like, the kitchen staff, the cleaning crew, that is representative of what we deem is success.'"
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education reported that black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. Butler believes there may be some connection to a cultural disconnect.
The absence of role models of color, Butler said, "creates a certain distance from authority. That can create defiance or can create, even among the teachers, a certain sense of distance that makes them not connect with students. So it can have a lot of unintended consequences for students and staff."
It's not that schools don't want to hire men of color. Quite the contrary, King said. Those candidates are highly sought after, but there just are not enough of them.
"I think a lot of stereotyping around teachers is what keeps men from entering the profession," said Palacios,
Schools of education at colleges around the country are not graduating enough men of color from their programs, King said.
For men, he said, particularly men of color, "being a teacher is not seen as the profession for family support. Right? And so we have to rebrand what it means to be an educator and beyond the monetary aspect."
Education leaders need to talk up teaching, said King. He's a Morehouse University graduate who hadn't thought much about a career in education until an educator steered him toward Teach for America, which began in the 1990s to recruit and train college scholars to become teachers.
"We have not talked to enough African American boys about teaching as a possibility and about seeing it as a pathway for where they are most needed," King said. "So we need to be having more conversations with them at the K 12 level about how we need teachers and how they can be the difference makers and change makers for the next generation."
Butler said he recently asked the seniors in the English class he teaches at Center High School, where most students are African American, "Hey anyone want to be a teacher?" Not one hand was raised. "I think it is because they don't see themselves in the teachers and they just have not seen it as a possibility," Butler said.
"When they see themselves reflected in certain professions then they tend to think, 'Hey I want to do that, or I think I can do that.' Versus if you never really had teachers of color it is never something that crosses your mind as something that you would want to do."
Area school district leaders say they are making an effort to change that narrative.
The KCK, Raytown, North Kansas City and Lee's Summit school districts have launched grow-your-own teacher programs that direct high school students toward the profession. Of the 32 students in the North Kansas City program, more than half are students of color.
In Raytown, tuition for qualified students is paid if they graduate from a college education program and then teach in the Raytown district.
The Ewing Marion Kauffman charter school has a two-year teacher residency program. After the first year, it helps candidates complete online course work to obtain Missouri teaching certification. To date, more than 60% of teachers from that program hired at the charter are people of color, and 26% are black men.
In Lee's Summit earlier this year, the district's first African American superintendent left after a dispute with the all-white school board over its reluctance to pay for equity training for teachers. Some teachers told The Star they were worried the very public race-related dispute would scare away future minority teacher candidates.
African American teachers in Lee's Summit, including one of the 11 black male teachers in the district, are working on recruiting.
Ovie Oghenejobo, a black psychology teacher, recruited about 40 students into his International Baccalaureate class its first year and had 60 sign up the following year. He is one of the teachers tapped by district administrators to encourage teachers of color to come to Lee's Summit.
"In the case for more diverse teachers, researchers call one phenomenon the 'role model effect,' where positive role model effects were found after having just one black teacher," said Kelly Wachel, district spokeswoman.
"Ovie is such a connector and he is certainly a valuable role model for our students." On top of recruiting, district leaders are advertising with historically black colleges and universities, and with local hip-hop and R&B radio programs.
The KCK district is partnering with Kansas State University, University of Kansas and MidAmerica Nazarene University to place new teaching graduates in KCK classrooms. It's paying off, Foust said. Two young men of color — one black and one Hispanic — from MidAmerica Nazarene have just started with the district.
Sometimes getting young men to agree to pursue a career in education "takes some convincing," said Kretschmer, the education professor.
But even if colleges succeed in attracting more men of color to their education programs and school districts succeed in upping their hiring game, keeping those new hires on staff is yet another challenge.
Other teachers do play a part in the retention of men of color, King said.
Teachers want to feel comfortable, an integral part of their work environment, without feeling like a stereotype, Palacios said. "There is this idea that men tend to take on discipline roles in schools and men of color are often asked to return to positions as teachers that were traumatic situations for them as a student — handling disruptive students, talking to the troubled athlete." Palacio said that when these men are asked to treat students how they were once treated, a lot of times they don't stick around.
Education research teams at Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley are studying best practices for retaining teachers of color. One suggestion is networking groups, where they come together to discuss work and its challenges.
Palacio said the 2% figure for men of color in U.S. schools "has been the same for quite a while, even though there is a lot of effort around recruitment and retention."
A little more than 10 years ago, the Great Recession disrupted the growth. Now, Palacios said, "with all the negative rhetoric" at the national level, "these are difficult times for black and brown men to walk into the school environment to teach."
That hasn't stopped Butler, who began working with kids when he was 18 and worked in a juvenile offender facility in Wichita for five years before moving to Kansas City. After six years teaching in the Center district, he became an assistant principal at the high school. He left two years ago for the Shawnee Mission district, where he was an assistant principal at a middle school.
Now he's back in the classroom at Center High School, and he said he's trying to change lives.
"I know these kids," Butler said. "I know a lot of them outside of school and I know their parents. I know them well enough to say to them, 'I know your mama doesn't let you act like that,' and so I'm going to hold them to a higher standard. I expect them to do better."
And when he was buying new books for the English department, he chose two by black American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates "because I realized as an English teacher that these textbooks that we have been using for years, our students aren't in them. That's because they weren't really written for them, they were written just for the average American student and didn't include a lot of African American perspective."
Butler said he believes that for a lot of his students, "it will be the first time that they read a book in an English class at school and know that this is 100% about me and about my experience. And that is a big shift for a lot of teachers."
He said the classroom is where representation matters most. "I think it is important for me to advocate for that. For our kids."