Talent Scouts

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The West Hartford, Conn., schools are in a jam. They want to hire more black, Hispanic, and Asian teachers. But it hasn't been easy. Like suburban districts nearby, they've tried just about every trick in the book. They've sent scouts to colleges down South, to recruiting fairs up North in Boston, and covered territory in between. Most of their efforts, though, have not put them where they want to be. "It's been a challenge for us, to be frank," says Timothy Dunn, the district's director of human resources.

Last fall, the schools hired four minority educators--not bad for a district that is still predominantly white. Of its 8,300 students, just one-fifth are minorities.

Still, West Hartford officials worry. The number of minority students is growing, while the teaching force barely changes. Over time, what would that mean for the district? Children would have little contact with people of color they could look up to. Teachers would write their lessons in one voice. Maybe even the community would begin to feel off balance. Who knows?

So Dunn is out again looking for a few good men and women. Today, he's joined other local recruiters at an event for minorities interested in teaching. It's Saturday morning, and the scouts have set up at a community college in Hartford. Candidates are making the rounds. Dunn is giving his pitch.

Someone like Randall Conway might come along. He lives in the area, he's black, and he wants to be a teacher. Conway, 25, married and the father of two, is a state trooper. But teaching is what he really wants to do, and he only has to jump through one more hoop to get into the state's alternative-certification program. "My family gave me inspiration that no matter where you come from, you can do what you want," says Conway, who grew up in the projects of Newark, N.J. He wants to pass that conviction on to his students someday. "Your first role models are your parents, but teachers have very much influence. If you don't have it at home, you tend to look to your teachers."

Conway is checking out his options at the career fair, where he can meet the brass from a dozen districts in the region--and even some from further downstate. Soon, he'll be in the market for a job.

People like Tim Dunn will be waiting.

The facts, plain and simple: The nation's minority-student population is booming. Its minority-teaching force is not. National statistics show that about a third of all students are minorities, while about 13 percent of teachers are. Even more troubling, only about 10 percent of the teachers now in the pipeline are minorities.

Educators fear this trend points to trouble. "A society that reflects the full participation of all its citizens will be difficult to accomplish if only one in 20 teachers is a member of a minority group," a 1990 report by the Education Commission of the States says. "At this rate, the average child will have only two minority teachers--out of about 40--during his or her K-12 school years." The need is greatest in urban schools, but no one goes untouched.

"This is a serious problem in our state," warns Theodore Sergi, Connecticut's acting education commissioner. One-quarter of the state's students are minorities now, while 7 percent of the teachers are. "There have been efforts, but there's really not been any serious change."

"Schools are the fault line for two fundamental issues facing America: developing our human potential and embracing and celebrating the diversity that makes up our society," adds David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. The organization promotes precollegiate and other programs to interest members of minority groups in the profession.

Foundations, the federal government, and national organizations are also working to close the gap. The Ford Foundation and the DeWitt Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund, for example, have devoted millions of dollars to expanding the pool of minority teachers in recent years. Still, Haselkorn laments, "it's a broken front of efforts."

But outside money and help only go so far. Much will depend on the modest efforts of districts like West Hartford. Schools--however tight their budgets--are doing what they can.

Some school districts have already made giant leaps. Take Broward County, Fla., the nation's eighth-largest district. Ten years ago, about 5 percent of the district's teachers were minorities. Today, that figure is 32 percent--25 percent of whom are black educators. Now, the teaching force looks more like the student body: Fifty percent of the district's 200,000 students are members of minority groups. What made the difference? For one thing, scouts can offer contracts to top teachers on the spot--a trump card many districts can't play.

But it's also a district with more money than most. The schools have six employees who do nothing but recruit all over the country, says Roger Beaumont, Broward's director of instructional staffing.

Likewise, Prince George's County, Md., the nation's 16th-largest district, has blitzed the teacher market. Its teacher recruiters make an annual journey in the district's motor home to dozens of historically black colleges. The approach has earned the Washington suburb a national reputation for recruiting black teachers, particularly men. Of the county's 600 new hires last school year, 47 percent were black. Some 70 percent of the county's students are black.

These district efforts are what Haselkorn calls "capture" strategies--picking from the existing ranks of minority candidates without trying to increase the number entering the field. They're just one part of the campaign to recruit minority teachers. In addition, there are programs around the country that work to identify likely candidates and set them on the road to the classroom. Many districts have also launched intensive searches for qualified bilingual teachers. Lots of money and manpower are going into all these efforts.

But many small and even medium-sized districts have to make do with less. Some can't afford to be so creative.

"We rely a lot on word of mouth," adds Eddie Antoine, the senior personnel director for the Norfolk, Va., schools, which enroll about 35,000 students, 60 percent of them black. Some minority candidates emerge through the district's involvement in DeWitt Wallace's Pathways to Teaching Careers program, which identifies paraprofessionals, substitutes, and others already working for the district who want to teach. Still, the budget for recruiting is tight. "We just don't have the kind of money" for elaborate schemes, Antoine says.

Norfolk's scouts never stray far from home. Antoine, a retired naval officer, and his team go to almost every historically black college within a 300-mile radius. That takes them to places like Richmond, Va., and Elizabeth City, N.C. But they are lucky enough to have prospects in their own backyard.

The district does hard-hitting recruiting at Norfolk State University, a predominantly black institution just a few minutes from downtown. The public university has about 8,500 students, and its education school turns out hundreds of teachers a year. About 85 percent of those education graduates are black; many are nontraditional candidates. Some made their start in the military--Norfolk is home to one of the nation's largest naval facilities--while others are starting their careers late. This year, the school is even training a few former ministers.

The education program also has a good reputation: Students are up on current theories and trends, and they are held to strict requirements. The elementary education training is particularly strong, observers say.

So it comes as no surprise that Norfolk's scouts have jumped on their opportunities.

On a recent day, Lynne Meeks, a district recruiter, walked through the district's hiring process with an endless stream of candidates. It was the same routine, over and over: Find out a little about each student, tell them about the district, where it has openings. Any questions? It's a routine school recruiters repeat many times a year. And Eddie Antoine says it's worth it. Last year, 72 of the district's 243 new hires were black.

Other districts are also recruiting heavily at historically black colleges, says Haselkorn. Such institutions are now a prime source of black teachers: Surveys show that nearly half of the African-American students in undergraduate teacher trainingattend black universities. Last year, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education said that finding--coupled with the growing gapbetween the percentages of black students and black teachers nationwide--spurred it to help launch a network to support training programs in those schools.

Connecticut districts tried Norfolk's route. But it wasn't working. "We used to go all over and try to bring people back," says Wilson Deakin, the assistant superintendent for administration in the Manchester district, just east of the state capital. "We'd bring Virginia people up to the district to do student-teaching. But we'd be lucky to get one out of eight. They all liked doing that, but they wanted to go home when it came to taking a job." Dunn and others also chuckle about how tough it was to entice students to come up to central Connecticut in the winter or early spring--when they might have opportunities in the sunny South.

"We saw some good people," adds Frank Stewart, the human-resources director for the Windsor schools, also outside Hartford. "But it's a long way to come."

Now, the suburban districts are doing more homegrown or local recruiting. About three dozen districts--mostly in the region, but also further afield--take part in a recruiting effort run by the Capitol Region Education Council, which is funded by the state and the districts. The council sponsored the Saturday recruiting fair in Hartford.

Scouts say the cooperative effort makes sense. "Economically, this is the right way to do this," adds Lou Ervin of the Manchester schools. "We pool our resources, and we all have an equal shot at these candidates. You just have to carve a niche for your district." Ervin is helping his district scout new hires at the fair--and he seems to know everybody who passes by. He says it's a perfect place for districts to hobnob with candidates at both ends of the career spectrum: Some are certified and ready to teach, others are still just toying with the idea.

Norfolk also holds local fairs. And though it seems to have an edge over its neighbors, the district recognizes the value of working together. "Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth--we sell ourselves as a region," Antoine, the personnel director, says of the Tidewater region of Virginia. "If there's a super person and we can't place him or her, we call up another local and tell them. If we get that person into the region, the region wins."

Connecticut's regional council, which has been active for the past decade, has been credited with many hiring gains in the area. Last year, for instance, Manchester had a good season. The schools hired six black and two Hispanic candidates, three of them from the fair. That was a record, says Deakin. Now, about 5 percent of the district's 550 teachers are from minority groups.

Still, the suburban districts are in a tight spot. "It's been a struggle," says another scout from a once all-white enclave near Hartford. Like neighboring districts, its demographics are slowly changing. "We have to go out and recruit: People aren't going to come to us. I have files and files of qualified Caucasians. But there has to be that affirmative effort."

Race has become a charged issue in Connecticut.In the past few years, the state has passed a voluntary regional-desegregation law and seen debates over a lawsuit challenging the racial isolation of students in Hartford and its suburbs. A judge last month ruled the state was not responsible for creating the segregation alleged in Sheff v. O'Neill and so is not responsible for fixing it.

But the issues raised by the state law--and the suit that inspired it--will not fade away, residents say.

Time was when most suburbs in the state were white; the cities were where minorities settled. "If you know the state, you know we still have some very little places where people think they are an island," Sergi, the state's acting education commissioner, tells a crowd at the Hartford recruiting fair. But that is changing. And the scouts here know it.

"Manchester still has the mentality of a suburban district," says Deakin, the assistant superintendent. "But it's slowly coming to realize" that its neighborhoods look different. In the 1970's, the district had a minority population of 2 percent to 3 percent. Now, about a quarter of its 8,000 students are minorities. Many of their parents left urban areas like Hartford and New Britain in search of better job opportunities or more affordable housing. In West Hartford and in Windsor--which has a 40 percent minority-student population--it's almost the same story.

The Manchester schools are doing their best to keep up with the community's look. Several years back, the schools even hired a director of multicultural education--something that was quite unheard of in these parts at the time. Ervin, the director, has a mission: to update the curriculum and bring more color to the teaching force. He's hard at it, and many take notice. "In fact, he's been borrowed so much by other districts and [the region's education council], I often ask him: 'Who are you working for today?'" Deakin says jokingly.

Even with the shifts in population, though, a majority of the state's school districts still have no racial or ethnic diversity in their faculty--or maybe one or two teachers of color. People at the fair say they hope that changes, too.

Last month, Alex Kotlowitz wrote an article for the The New York Times Magazine called "Upward Fragility." In the piece, the author of There Are No Children Here--a 1991 book about two boys growing up in a Chicago housing project--chronicled the lives of five young black men who had attended that city's DuSable High School. One of the most compelling things about the story was the impact that a black educator at the school had had on the young men, several of whom headed to college with his support and encouragement.

No one really knows whether minority students do better when they are taught by people of the same color. But many educators believe it does make a difference.

"The school society is no different from the rest of society," says Brenda Haynes, the director of Project PRIME at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Under the program, funded by DeWitt Wallace, eight Baltimore-area colleges and universities work to recruit more minorities into teaching and administration. "We need [minorities as teachers] for the same reasons we need them as doctors or lawyers," Haynes says. "We need a pluralistic teaching force for our children."

And minority teachers one day can make their marks as principals and superintendents. "We have these people making decisions for all the children in the system," she says. "And it could be people without the vaguest notion of the experiences of about 85 percent of their kids. It's just a matter of perspective."

For Frank Stewart of the Windsor, Conn., district, "blackness doesn't make a person a better teacher, but that person brings something to a school that others don't. It's just one of the elements you have to consider."

In Connecticut, more minority teachers are finding themselves in mostly white schools. But they say that's not important. Because just being a good teacher--whatever stripe--should be enough.

"All children need someone to care about them," says Montinia Donald, a veteran black teacher who works in Avon, a mostly white, affluent community. "Color is really not the primary thing I look at. No matter what community you're in, kids are going to have basic needs. That's a constant. I would just have to know that I'm going to a system where the teachers are there for the kids. There are so many political issues that can get in the way."

In fact, some minority teachers seek out work in districts with fewer minority students or teachers. Monica Clayburn, 27, teaches 5th grade at Windsor's Clover Elementary. The school is smack-dab in the suburbs, albeit suburbs where more and more black families are settling. It's a big change from the inner-city school where she did her student-teaching. But she thinks this district has more to offer her--like professional support and stability. The color of the kids shouldn't matter. "I was one of three black students in my high school class," says Clayburn, who grew up about 30 miles north, in Springfield, Mass. "Growing up, all my teachers were white. But I loved it; I got comfortable working with everyone."

"I've had kids who told me they were so glad they had me: They'd never had a black teacher before," adds Felicia Fountain, 28, a first-year teacher in Manchester. "They get to know that you're just like they are."

Several students at Norfolk State express the same views.

Helene Robinson is student-teaching at an elementary school in Virginia Beach, a resort city just south of Norfolk. Its population is more homogeneous--and white--than that of its neighbor; 70 percent of the district's students are white. Robinson grew up in Norfolk and attended its public schools, so she has strong ties there. But she might take a job in a place that's less familiar. "I think the need for African-Americans in Virginia Beach is great," says Robinson, taking a breather in a university lounge with a couple of friends. "Whether it be me or someone else, they need to be there."

Robinson took her current assignment as a challenge. Out of about 180 students in her program, few chose to get their classroom experience outside Norfolk. "When they asked who wanted to student-teach in Virginia Beach, everyone who was white raised their hands," she says. "Everyone who was black raised their hands for Norfolk."

Amy Burke is dead set on Norfolk. She's student-teaching a 1st-grade class there, and she loves it. During the informal interviews at the university, she tells Meeks, the recruiter, she can't believe how much support she's getting from the teachers and principal at her school. She's from the area, she's comfortable here. She hopes there will be a place for her.

If there isn't one in Norfolk, chances are one will be waiting somewhere else. Other school systems--even out of state--will probably go after recruits like Robinson and Burke. "The competition for qualified minorities is fierce everywhere," says Deakin of the Manchester, Conn., district.

The opportunities are exciting, new teachers say. "But there's also a lot of pressure on the students," adds Shirley Winstead, the director of student-teaching at Norfolk State. She says districts from all over come to the university, trying to woo candidates away. Then the offers come rolling in. And decision time.

"A good candidate will have a choice of two or three jobs," adds Stewart of Windsor, Conn. That's why it's a coup for the district to get its picks.

"I think African-American students are realizing that districts need them," Winstead says. "But they don't just need bodies." The easiest part might be getting the job. "Then you have to prove yourself and keep it," she adds.

Two young black women from New Haven have come to check out the Hartford career fair. Medria Blue, looking sleek in navy-blue pants and a blazer, scrolls down the list of districts recruiting today. Avon, Glastonbury, Newington, Simsbury--lots of suburban schools. "Oh, New Haven's not here," says Blue, nudging her friend. "Bridgeport's not either," Tawanda Webb chimes in. The prospective teachers look disappointed. They will not have a shot at two of the state's largest urban districts--at least not today.

Blue laughs at the thought of teaching up here. "This is central to nothing." Leaning forward, she confides, "That's why you have to make a lot of money--you have to entertain yourself." She and Webb look at each other and grin.

Scouts in Connecticut say they do have one advantage over recruiters from other states: They can offer top salaries. The state now has the highest average teaching salary in the country, about $49,000. "And money talks," one school official reminds. Some recruiters say they actually think that's helped them draw black males who might otherwise head into more lucrative jobs in the private sector.

But it's not just the money that helps schools sell. Scouts in both the Hartford area and in Norfolk make several points, over and over: Teachers will have mentors work with them, and the opportunities are good for climbing the professional ladder. And they want recruits to know that the schools value their ideas.

The scouts have a way of getting those points across--through new hires. They bring them to recruiting events to talk to job-seekers and hope the rest is magic.

"Our teachers will sell the district for us," says Meeks, who recruits guidance counselors and elementary, music, and art teachers for Norfolk. She asks every candidate she meets if they know someone teaching in the district. If they don't, she asks them to find one--fast. She says she thinks they'll like what they hear.

Felicia Fountain is Manchester's pride and joy. She's smart, she's outgoing, and she loves her job. School officials bring her to the Hartford recruiting fair to meet and greet. She does this well. And just maybe she'll attract other bright, young minority men and women into her district.

"My district is really recruiting heavily," says Fountain, who used to cover the school beat for the Meriden Record-Journal. "If there was a minority who was going to leave, they would do whatever they could to keep you."

"We work hard at making them comfortable here," adds Deakin.

Randall Conway just about closes down the recruiting fair in Hartford. So does Tim Dunn. It's been a long morning. Most scouts talked to three dozen or so prospective teachers in a few hours. Dunn packs up his papers. Across the room, Conway makes a last contact with Lou Ervin from Manchester--where the state trooper lives with his family. Felicia Fountain introduces the two men, who chat while Conway's 7-year-old, Richard, fidgets nearby. Ervin has seen more young men here than in years past, and he's encouraged. Later, Conway confides that he's really interested in a job in the city--in Hartford. Maybe it's his background, he says. "You can become a victim of your environment" if there isn't a parent--or a teacher--who believes in you, he says finally. "I think I'd like to teach where a lot of others don't want to." Then he and a few other stragglers are on their way.

Vol. 14, Issue 34

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