At the start of Baron R. Davis’s career in education, he slipped into a role commonly shouldered by Black men in K-12 public schools—the tough-love administrator. More than that: He was good at it.
“I became known or celebrated for being this strong disciplinarian, and no nonsense, and people appreciated it,” said Davis, the superintendent of Richland Two School District in suburban Columbia, S.C. He rapidly rose through the ranks, moving from a high school assistant administrator overseeing freshman retention to a high school principal position seven years later.
In 2008, Davis, took a principal position at a predominantly Black and low-income middle school. It was there that the Columbia native began a shift to what he would later call an “Exodus moment:” Was he imparting discipline to children under his care—or simply punishing them?
“I couldn’t be that administrator where my job was just to punish kids,” he said. “I had been rewarded for being hard on Black kids, and I didn’t accomplish anything by being hard on them.”
And now Davis, who has been superintendent of the one of South Carolina’s largest and fastest-growing districts since 2017, wants to add more Black men to the classroom who have a similar mindset.
Already a minority within a minority, only about 2 percent of the nation’s teachers are Black men. Davis has set an explicit goal to hire 100 more men of color in his district by 2024, as well as hold on to the Black men that the district already has on staff. While many districts talk about the importance of creating a diverse teaching staff, Richland Two’s measurable goals for recruitment and retention stand out.
Currently, 6 percent of Richland Two’s teachers are Black men. That is better than the national percentage, but Black men are still dramatically underrepresented compared to the district’s student body, which is about 60 percent Black, 22 percent white and 10 percent Hispanic. (White men make up 12 percent of the district’s teaching staff.)
If the district is successful both in meeting its hiring targets and in retaining the Black male teachers it already has on staff, Black men would represent about 10 percent of its teachers, based on current employment numbers.
Davis believes that’s achievable. “We got to 6 percent with no focus,” he said. “If we focus, maybe we can do 12 percent.”
And Davis said he wants more for these hires than to be slotted into the “enforcer” role that marked his early career.
“We’re interested in people who are interested in being academic giants,” Davis said. “I’m not looking at men who can keep the boys in check.”
Growing up ‘economically poor, community rich’
Davis said his own upbringing was similar to that of some of his students. He was raised in a public housing unit from age 3 by his grandmother, Alberta Hill. She died in June 2017, just a month before he became superintendent.
In addition to his family’s love and support, Davis said he was blessed by having “phenomenal educators who pushed me to be more than I thought I was capable of being,” he said. “Those individuals never gave up.”
One of his high school math teachers was Black, as were a biology teacher and his high school counselors. “And I had access to the ones whose classes I didn’t take,” Davis said.
Benedict College, a historically Black institution, was near Davis’s home. He played sports in the college gym, swam in its pool, and absorbed the positive influence of being around high-achieving Black students. The mother of Charles Bolden, a Black astronaut and the first Black administrator of NASA, lived in a house that Davis passed on his way to school.
“She was a former educator and she raised an astronaut. And she lived in my community,” Davis said.
The public housing complex where he lived faced its share of crime and poverty, Davis said, but it also had a neighborhood grocery store that trusted its customers, like his grandmother, enough to allow them to buy food and pay off the bill on credit. The neighborhood also had adults who watched out for all the community’s children.
“I was economically poor and community rich,” he said.
That sense of community is what Davis hopes to create through his recruitment and retention initiative, which the district calls “Premier 100.” The program is still new; its first major recruiting effort was in November 2019. Nevertheless, the district is close to being on the pace it set for itself, with 24 Black men hired as teachers for the pandemic-disrupted 2020-21 school year.
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Richland Two’s efforts are clearly backed by a growing body of research on the impact of same-race teachers on Black students. They’ve found that for Black students—and for Black boys in particular—having a Black teacher boosts academic achievement, increases their likelihood of being placed in gifted education, reduces dropout rates, and increases students’ likelihood of attending college.
A number of effects could be at play, say those who have studied the topic: Black students may benefit from having Black teachers as positive role models, or those Black teachers may be using more culturally relevant instructional practices. White teachers may also have lower expectations of their Black students, either consciously or unconsciously.
But the number of Black teachers has remained stubbornly low for decades. After the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education outlawed legal school segregation, white-run school districts chose to dismiss thousands of highly qualified Black teachers and administrators in favor of keeping white staff employed and predominantly white schools open. Those choices decimated a teaching force that has still not recovered.
That narrow pipeline is a major challenge for Richland Two and for the teaching profession as a whole, Davis said. Black boys don’t often see themselves reflected among teachers, he said, so that may make them less likely to aspire to the position. They also often want jobs that have higher earning potential and that are perceived as more prestigious, he said.
“But you can’t keep saying there’s not enough Black men in education. What are you going to do about it?” Davis said. “There are multiple people doing multiple things. This is something that I decided to do.”
One of Premier 100’s first recruitment actions was to host a summit that invited prospective teachers to visit the district and its schools, and talk to teachers, students and administrators.
Anfernee Hodges, a high school history teacher in his first year at Richland Two, was part of that recruiting trip. He is a graduate of Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., about 70 miles north of Columbia, and Richland Two had not previously been on his radar. The two districts where he had been a student-teacher made it clear they wanted to hire him.
But so did Richland Two. The district offered him a contract during that trip. And, “I just felt that this was a district that was not only saying they cared about diversity, but they were really showing it,” Hodges said. “The amount of African-American administrators made them stand out a lot.”
And Hodges also felt that the district was responsive to his own professional goals. “I wanted to be the history teacher who told everybody’s history, including stories that maybe kids had not heard before—to tell them why these things in the past matter today.”
It was also meaningful for Hodges that Davis said he wants to see the recruited teachers in all types of roles. That could mean being department heads or curriculum leaders if they choose, or teaching gifted or Advanced Placement courses. Like Davis did earlier in his career, Hodges had concerns about being pigeonholed.
“I’m an African-American male teacher. I know from just past experience, when you come in as a Black male, they automatically think ‘I’m going to place all of my ‘behavioral’ students with you.’ They just automatically assume you’re the ‘Black whisperer’ to these kids.”
So far, Hodges said his classes have been predominantly Black, with students in a range of achievement levels. “That’s something I really, really enjoy,” he said.
A place where Black male teachers can be genuine
In developing its recruitment and retention efforts, Richland Two is also relying on other organizations that are trying to rebuild the pipeline of Black male teachers. One is The Call Me MISTER initiative, founded at Clemson University in South Carolina. MISTER, which stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models, recruits Black men to be teachers, particularly in the elementary grades.
In February 2020, not long before the pandemic shut down schools across the nation, 200 program members visited the district for a day of service.
Roy Jones, the executive director of the Call Me MISTER initiative, praised Davis’s “bold declaration.”
“I mean it has to start with that, and he’s fearless about making that a priority,” said Jones , who pointed out that the hiring and retention initiative has been embraced by the district’s board leadership.
“Superintendents also have a boss, and not every school board is clearly as accommodating or as embracing of such a goal,” he said.
Call Me MISTER focuses on creating a supportive cohort for the men in its program, and Richland Two is creating the same process, by assigning its new teachers a mentor and having regular meetings where the group can talk about professional goals and challenges. One of the mentors is Brandon Ross, a Richland Two assistant high school principal. Ross easily reeled off the names of Black teachers and administrators who made a difference in his own life, including Akil Ross, his former high school principal and a former national principal of the year. (They are not related.)
I want all teachers, including teachers of color, to be authentically themselves in the classroom.
“Mentoring is something I deeply value and deeply connect with,” Brandon Ross said. In monthly meetings, they talk about everything from how to improve their classroom practice to how to be better men, husbands, and fathers. “That’s what’s going to bond these educators to our practice.”
One of Davis’s goals, he acknowledged, is more abstract than just increasing the sheer number of minority educators in the district. He’s also hoping to add teachers who feel comfortable being themselves in the classroom while also providing strong instruction.
“I want all teachers, including teachers of color, to be authentically themselves in the classroom. I believe that many of them think they have to leave who they really are outside of the classroom. They leave out certain things that would accentuate the educational experience that they deliver for their students,” he said.
“I want to create a place where they can be genuine,” Davis said. “Otherwise, I don’t think they can be at their best.”
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