Nothing in Room 129 was DarLisa Himrod’s own.
The 49-year-old aspiring teacher organized bulletin boards, dusted off a feelings chart, and studied the roster of incoming 1st graders at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Fine Arts & Literary School. But she remained overwhelmed by old memories and the long road ahead.
Then her new mentor opened Pandora and hit play on her gospel station. The lush voice of Tamela Mann filled the classroom and a familiar place in Himrod’s heart.
“I’m going to be open to what she has to say,” she thought as Leslie Perkins, a 32-year classroom veteran who is also Black, hung another laminated poster. “I want to learn.”
It was late August 2021. Two days later, school would start in this leafy Chicago suburb, where white children bring home some of the highest test scores in the country, but their Black and brown peers tend to lag 30, 40, or even 50 points behind.
Himrod knew that divide firsthand. She attended King Arts as a child, starting kindergarten when the school was still the beating heart of Evanston’s historically Black Fifth Ward. Then it was relocated to a whiter neighborhood by Evanston/Skokie School District 65. It was during the ensuing years that Himrod’s feelings about school had turned uncertain, bending the arc of her life toward struggle.
Now, her hair was streaked with gray, and her knees were stiff with arthritis. She loved directing the youth choir at Evanston’s Bethel AME Church, where her normally quiet voice soared with the other sopranos on Sunday mornings. But Himrod had spent most of her professional life toiling in area daycare centers, taking nearly two decades to nudge her annual salary up to $40,000. Even after landing a position in District 65’s early Head Start program, she had to keep working nights and weekends at a shelter for homeless teens.
“I want to do things with my life,” Himrod told her husband that spring.
Then the opportunity she’d been waiting for fell into her lap.
CREATE 65 was the brainchild of District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton. He wanted to attract more candidates of color who are often shut out of the current teacher pipeline, then provide them with a $30,000 stipend, enrollment at either Northwestern or National Louis University, and a full year of hands-on training at the elbow of an expert teacher.
The model is known as a teacher residency. More than 130 such programs are now in operation across the country.
But CREATE 65 came with a twist. Horton also wanted to train his new teachers to be anti-racist. Then he wanted to place them in strategic spots around the district, including the brand-new elementary school he hoped to construct in the Fifth Ward.
“Imagine building up these residents and training them the ’65 way’ in equity and getting them staffed at the new school,” the superintendent said. “There’s power in that.”
The reason for such enthusiasm came into focus when a diverse group of students entered Room 129, then Perkins and Himrod set out to meet their competing needs.
When asked to write their names, two Black girls managed only a scribble of misshapen letters, signaling immediately that they would need extra attention. (The girls’ parents did not agree to speak with Education Week, so their names are being withheld.)
An African-American boy named Quincy zoomed through his lessons; his mother, the president of the King Arts PTA, would soon complain the class was moving too slowly.
And then there was Felix, a white student who liked to loudly yell out that Perkins was boring and took up much of the oxygen in Room 129.
In response, Himrod began sitting on a stool next to the boy and gently encouraging him to raise his hand and please be neat, all classroom management strategies that were part of the “culture of nice” that had contributed to Evanston’s gaping racial divides for generations. But when Felix reacted by flinging his body onto the floor and throwing a tantrum, Himrod decided to switch up to the direct, no-nonsense style that came more naturally—and that everyone from Perkins to academic experts to Felix’s mother would later describe as part of what made her uniquely well suited to establish a classroom environment where all Evanston children could get the attention and care they deserve.
“I got down to his level and I told him, ‘We’re not doing that. So you need to get your body up off the floor right now,’” Himrod said. “The Black mom in me came out.”
‘Red Rock Prison’
Before it was rechristened King Arts, the school at the heart of Evanston’s Fifth Ward was known as Foster Elementary.
When it opened in 1905, Foster’s faculty and student body were nearly all white.
But the grand homes that white businessman were building near Lake Michigan needed domestic workers. That demand, combined with the opportunity to own land in a relatively bucolic environment, led the town’s Black population to swell to more than 2,500 people, who lived in pocket-sized communities scattered around the town.
In 1921, Evanston’s white leaders responded by passing a zoning ordinance that forced hundreds of those Black families to relocate. Developers inserted restrictive covenants into the deeds of properties in mostly-white areas stipulating that the homes “shall not be conveyed, leased to, or occupied by anyone not a Caucasian (servants excepted.)” Banks refused to lend money to Black families seeking homes.
The Fifth Ward, covering a small triangle of land around Foster that was bounded by railroad tracks to the east and a sanitation canal to the west, became the only viable place for most Black Evanstonians to live.
By the end of WWII, Foster’s student body was 99 percent Black.
That was still the case when DarLisa Himrod’s relatives arrived from South Carolina in the mid-1950s. Like many current and former Fifth Ward residents, the Widemans remember life in the segregated all-Black neighborhood with mixed emotions.
Thanks to indignities such as second-hand textbooks, neighborhood kids derided the crimson-bricked Foster building as “Red Rock Prison.”
But those same children could walk to school in the morning, come home for lunch, and be back in time for afternoon lessons. And Black teachers had been working at the school since 1942.
“I always wanted to teach, because I had awesome teachers back at Foster,” said Himrod’s mother, Phyllis Wideman-Pickett, who would eventually land a faculty position in the physical education department at Evanston Township High.
It was Fall of 1977 when DarLisa started kindergarten. By then, “Red Rock Prison” no longer housed Foster Elementary. Instead, it was home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Laboratory School, the pride of a progressive white former District 65 superintendent named Gregory Coffin and many of Evanston’s leading Black educators.
After being hired in 1966, Coffin had quickly pushed through a sweeping plan to desegregate the town’s elementary schools. Every school would have a student body that was between 17 and 25 percent Black. To make that happen, Coffin closed Foster, then began busing roughly 450 Black children out of the Fifth Ward each morning.
The plan was “not totally fair,” the superintendent later acknowledged.
So, as a kind of compensation, he put the new “lab school” inside the old Foster building, instituted a lottery system that was open to Black families from the surrounding community, and packed the school with amenities.1/11Black families had lived in Evanston since before the Civil War, building homes and opening businesses in small communities scattered across the town. (Tompson Hardware, c. 1912)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center2/11By 1920, Evanston was home to more than 2,500 Black people. (Father-son dinner at the Emerson Branch YMCA, c. 1920)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center3/11Evanston's white leaders responded with a zoning ordinance and other measures designed to segregate the town's Black residents in a triangular patch of land known as the Fifth Ward. (Fifth Ward Daycare Center, c. 1940)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center4/11Foster Elementary was located in the heart of the Fifth Ward. Nearly all-white when it opened in 1905, the school was 99 percent Black by WWII. (Foster School Dance, c. 1952)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center5/11Segregated Foster Elementary had to make do with second-hand textbooks and a thin budget. But the school was also a community anchor, with strong parent engagement and more than two dozen Black teachers. (Foster PTA brochure, 1952)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center6/11Many current and former Fifth Ward residents remember Foster as a loving, racially affirming school that provided an excellent education. (Foster School Play, 1957)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center7/11The Civil Rights Movement came to Evanston in the early 1960s, leading local Black leaders to push for an end to housing segregation in the town. (Evanston Fair Housing March, 1964)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center8/11The Foster PTA and 92 percent of the Black Fifth Ward parents surveyed in 1967 supported the plan to desegregate District 65's elementary schools. (Support Desegregation Flyer, 1967)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center9/11Foster's former attendance zone was partitioned, and hundreds of Black children were bused to other schools in whiter neighborhoods. (District 65 revised elementary attendance map, 1967.)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center10/11Inside the old Foster building, Coffin created an integrated "Lab School" with ungraded classrooms and a progressive curriculum designed in concert with experts from Northwestern University. Many Fifth Ward children attended the school (Foster Lab Kindergarten Class Photo, 1966-67.)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center11/11King Arts remained racially integrated at its new location. But the Fifth Ward lost a community anchor, and children were bused out of the neighborhood for decades. (King Lab Yearbook, 1981.)— Courtesy of Shorefront Legacy Center
Perhaps the most ambitious part of Coffin’s plan, however, was how he wanted to train Evanston teachers to work in their new mixed-race classrooms. During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the superintendent organized an “Integration Institute.” A precursor to the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that later became ubiquitous in teacher-preparation programs, the Institute aimed to help participants grapple with “the things that teachers do unwittingly which may perpetuate invidious racial distinctions.”
Experts such as historian John Hope Franklin gave public lectures, then worked with District 65 staff to develop a set of progressive instructional manuals for teachers. Topics included “Discipline Standards in Integrated Schools” and “Black Power and Its Effects on Racial Interaction.”
Recalling her white kindergarten teacher more than 40 years later, Himrod could still taste the fruit of Coffin’s efforts.
“She just was the most sweetest, kindest woman you ever laid your eyes on,” she said. “I always got to go in the teacher’s lounge with her. Her favorite drink was Tab, and she used to buy me one, too. Boy, I used to think I was something sitting there drinking my Tab in the teacher’s lounge.”
Unfortunately, though, such interactions were atypical.
In 1971, the Educational Testing Service published an evaluation of Coffin’s desegregation initiative. Racial disparities in students’ academic performance remained unchanged. Worse, the mostly white teachers in Evanston’s newly integrated classrooms were twice as likely to refer boys in their classrooms who were Black to the school psychologist as the mostly Black teachers at Foster had been. And most alarming of all were the results of an extensive survey of 408 District 65 teachers, who were found to view the Black children in their care as more hostile, aggressive, and indifferent than their white classmates.
For decades, the K-12 field would remain stubbornly focused on trying to change white educators’ racial attitudes and biases, said Niral Shah, an associate professor of education at the University of Washington. But an avalanche of research now makes clear that such efforts failed.
“The dominant logic model—that racial consciousness must change before anti-racist practice is possible—is not supported by the literature,” Shah concluded in a 2021 white paper for the Spencer Foundation.
That logic model didn’t work out in post-desegregation Evanston, either.
Superintendent Coffin’s contract was not renewed in 1970, sparking a huge controversy in the town that led to protests and confrontations for almost a year before a contentious school board election cemented his fate.
By the end of the decade, District 65 had shuttered “Red Rock Prison.” and moved the academic program now known as King Arts to its current location. The move further diluted the strength of Foster’s former Black teaching force, part of a national pattern after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The K-12 system’s present-day difficulties hiring and retaining Black teachers “didn’t just happen,” said Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. “Policymakers need to understand the history. Up to 40,000 Black educators were fired, laid off, or otherwise disrespected.”
By middle school, most of the Black adults DarLisa Himrod had regular contact with at King Arts worked in the nursing suite and cafeteria.
And at Evanston Township High, a white teacher passed her over for a spot on the student board that organized the annual talent show, despite Himrod’s three years of dedicated preparation.
“I thought if I did the right things, knew the right people, was a go-getter, I’ll be a shoo-in, because they have to at least make it look like they’re getting some Black folks on there,” she said. “That’s when my eyes began to get a little bit clearer.”
‘Black people magic’
The early morning sky outside King Arts was still dark and purple as a bruise when Himrod arrived in Room 129 for the 43rd day of the 2021-22 school year.
The next several hours would showcase the promise of CREATE 65’s focus on hands-on training and mentorship for aspiring educators of color.
The children’s first task was to find a laminated card with their name, then stick it on the feelings chart next to the emoji that best showed their mood.
One of the Black girls, who wore camouflage pants, was still struggling with her letters. A specialist pulled her out of the classroom before the work got harder.
The rest of the children gathered for morning circle to discuss their choices. Felix—who had calmed down considerably after Himrod and Perkins called home following the early tantrums—raised his hand and waited patiently.
“I absolutely adore Ms. Perkins, and Ms. Himrod seems very, very sweet,” said the boy’s mother, Annalese Duprey. “They don’t expect my son not to be a 6-year old, but they also aren’t going to take his ‘drama-queen’ stuff.”
Later that morning, Himrod took a seat in front of the room. She pulled out a small dry-erase board, then clicked her crimson fingernails against its shiny white surface to draw the children’s attention.
She’d just started leading lessons of her own. Her focus was supposed to be on giving clear instructions.
“You know what to do, draw your four squares,” Himrod told the class. “Can somebody tell me how many days we have been in school?”
The activity was intended to help children develop their number sense by giving them multiple ways to represent the number 43. In one of the squares on their whiteboards, Himrod had the children write the word “forty-three.” In another, she had them brainstorm simple arithmetic problems that would yield the same number.
Then she stumbled.
“We are going to fill in our ten frames,” Himrod started. “You know what to do. I’m not giving it to you.”
The children were supposed to visualize the number 43 by drawing one rectangle divided into ten boxes for the “tens” place and another for the “ones” place, then mark four boxes in the first rectangle and three boxes in the second. But many students were confused. Room 129 grew quiet.
Watching from the back, Perkins saw several sets of little legs bouncing anxiously under their desks.
“Remember,” the veteran teacher said as she strode to the front of the room. “For the number 43, how many tens do we have? Fill them in all together.”
Himrod later said she welcomed the on-the-spot intervention, a key to the residency model.
“She corrects me right in the moment,” she said of Perkins.
It helped that the veteran teacher had made a point of trying to improve her own practice, too. It was hard to argue the need for change; in early 2019, test score data had revealed that Black children at King Arts scored 51 points worse than their white counterparts in math and 61 points worse in reading.
To attack such disparities, Superintendent Horton wanted District 65 teachers to craft lesson plans that focused more on the needs of each individual child.
So for that morning’s phonics lesson, Perkins divided her class into small groups based on the letters each student knew. She worked with the advanced group, which included Quincy; after meeting with the boy’s parents, Perkins made sure he regularly received extra assignments.
On the other side of the classroom, meanwhile, Himrod eased herself down onto a purple floor mat, extending her creaky knees and crossing her legs at the ankle. She was working with the children still struggling with phonemic awareness. They were supposed to point out letters on a laminated chart as Himrod read them aloud. But the girl in the camouflage pants began rocking back and forth, then took off her COVID mask and started spinning around on her knees.
Despite an unsettled home life, she had plenty of supports in place. At King Arts, the girl saw Perkins and Himrod, plus three different specialists. She also received after-school help from the choir director at her church.
But Himrod had noticed a disconnect.
“Three of us are Caucasians and three of us are African-Americans,” she said. “I’m not saying that the Caucasian teachers don’t have a stake, but I think they get caught up in the ‘Oh, she’s had such a rough life.’ Whereas Ms. Perkins, myself, and the choir director, we’re like, ‘Yeah, you’re right. She has been through a lot. But when are we going to make sure she can do what needs to be done?’”
The value of that perspective is backed by an overwhelming body of evidence.
Researchers have repeatedly found that Black students who have a Black teacher attend school more regularly, score higher on tests, graduate at higher rates, and feel more academically challenged. That’s likely because Black teachers as a group are more likely than their white colleagues to have high expectations, build strong relationships with their families, and spend time meeting their individual needs.
Many researchers also believe that Black teachers are generally better-equipped to recognize and tap into the gifts Black children bring to the classroom.
“There’s a kind of ‘Black people magic,’ for lack of a better term,” said Decoteau J. Irby, an associate professor of educational policy studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “It shows up in your tone of voice, your facial expressions, how you interact, your cultural sensibilities, how you show high expectations instead of pity.”
Such magic was evident in Room 129. Himrod scooched over close to the girl in the camouflage pants, snuggled in next to her, and tucked the strap of her mask back behind her ear. Then she made direct eye contact and turned her voice serious.
“We’re spelling ‘duck,’” Himrod said. “Duuuh, duuuh, what letter is that?”
“D,” the girl said, earning a huge smile from her teacher.
A broken pipeline
Of course, schools can’t just stick any random Black person in front of a classroom and expect them to pull the best out of children. Nor can they assume that teachers of color are automatically anti-racist.
Training, credentials, and experience all matter, too.
In theory, the university partners involved with CREATE 65 were supposed to deliver all that in a way that complemented the residents’ classroom experiences. But such alignment was sporadic at best. Himrod, for example, learned after becoming a resident that the credits she’d accumulated while earning her bachelor’s degree a decade earlier didn’t match up with National Louis’s requirements. As a result, she’d have to pay more than $1,500 to take three extra courses over winter break.
Largely as a result of such confusion, the program’s inaugural cohort of 19 residents had started to dwindle. Himrod, fresh off celebrating her 50th birthday, was determined to hold on.
On a sunny Friday morning, she headed to the public library, where she’d reserved a private room to sit through her three-hour online teaching practicum. The instructor, a white former 2nd grade teacher, sent the class into breakout rooms for an activity.
“I don’t even know what we’re supposed to be talking about,” a woman in Himrod’s group said.
“Me neither,” Himrod replied.
“I’m literally making a balloon garden right now,” the woman continued, tilting her laptop camera down to show a field of pink.
Absent direction, the conversation soon turned to the Illinois Licensure Testing System. Every aspiring teacher in the state had to pass the relevant ILTS exam in order to become licensed and certified. The previous year, however, just 6 percent of Black test-takers passed on their first attempt.
Such numbers are one reason why many researchers view such exams as a significant barrier to rebuilding the nation’s Black teaching force.
“It’s important that teachers are competent,” said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher and policy analyst with the Learning Policy Institute. “But the research does not indicate that these tests consistently predict teacher effectiveness.”
As Himrod’s group began comparing notes, she revealed she’d recently failed the test. Each subsequent attempt would cost her another $120.
“It’s a racket,” Himrod said, leading the faces on her screen to nod in unison.
Eventually, the class got to work. Their assignment was to review a curriculum guide and determine whether a lesson plan had clear objectives and directions.
For Himrod, the good news was she’d soon be teaching the lesson in question, about how to add three single-digit numbers by first combining two of the numbers to make ten.
The bad news was her group was reviewing a guide from a publisher District 65 didn’t use.
Worse, when it came time to teach the activity herself, the district and National Louis had confusing—and sometimes competing—expectations for the lesson plans she and the other residents were supposed to develop.
The overlapping demands were starting to overwhelm Himrod.
On the 55th day of school, her lesson on adding three single-digit numbers went off the rails almost immediately.
“I’m going to put down some numbers, and you’re going to add them together,” Himrod began.
“Uh-uhh,” interjected Perkins.
After being asked to take on a second resident mid-semester, she’d also grown annoyed with CREATE 65. This time, she didn’t get up to stand beside Himrod, instead correcting her from the back of the classroom.
“Say, ‘Write down any two numbers you know that if you add them together will make ten,’” Perkins said.
Chastened, Himrod promptly made an arithmetic error. Then she gave more confusing directions. Before she could clear things up, a light snow began to fall outside, leading the children to abandon their desks and rush to the windows.
“It’s been a day, huh?” CREATE 65 staff member Tracey Carter said when Himrod arrived harried and late for her afternoon coaching session upstairs.
“It’s been a whole year,” Himrod replied.
“Hold on a second, boo. I’m getting a phone call,” Carter said.
After hanging up, the coach began rattling off a list of everything still on tap for that week.
“I’m supposed to write lesson plans for all of this?” Himrod asked wearily.
Later, Carter would help streamline the lesson-planning process for CREATE 65 residents. In the moment, though, she had to run to another meeting. The sound of her black heels striking King Arts’ tiled floors echoed down the hallway as Himrod gathered her things.
“‘You don’t want to be like your mother, sitting here at 50 years old, still trying to accomplish all these goals I set for myself years ago,’” Himrod had begun telling her own children. “I’d walk away now if I didn’t believe you should finish the things you start.”
School staffing shortages began making national headlines as 2021 drew to a close.
Retirees, the National Guard, and the Governor of New Mexico were all pressed into classroom duty. Statewide, Illinois education officials counted roughly 5,300 unfilled teaching positions. In Evanston, principals were being forced to cover classes.
Himrod had hoped winter break might offer some respite.
Instead, she spent the two weeks binging the online courses she had to make up.
She also failed the ILTS for a second time.
And on December 24th, she tested positive for COVID.
“Well, that just blew our Christmas out of the water,” she said with a sigh.
When the spring semester started, Himrod was rotated into her second placement. It was back in District 65’s early Head Start center, where she’d previously worked with children three years old and younger. Now, she was in a preschool class. In early February, she began leading lessons on shapes.
“Who can draw me a square?” Himrod said, holding up another small whiteboard.
A little boy responded by throwing shreds of ripped-up paper into the air. Unfazed, Himrod handed him the whiteboard. Line down, line across, she narrated. When the boy was done drawing his square, he quietly began cleaning up the mess he’d made.
“A natural,” said Himrod’s new mentor, Andrea deAvila.
Himrod, however, was racked with anxiety. She had one more chance to pass the ILTS. Fail again, and her path to becoming a teacher would end.
To prepare, she signed up for tutoring help from National Louis. But since she was still working a few evening shifts a week at her second job, she had to squeeze some of the virtual sessions into her lunch break.
On a chilly Friday afternoon, she gathered her laptop and headed into deAvila’s cramped supply closet, dodging diaper bags as she wedged herself into a kiddie chair.
Lofty goals like advancing racial equity and repairing generational harms were afterthoughts now. Everything was about passing the exam. The tutor focused almost entirely on test-taking techniques.
“I have ten slides,” she said.
Himrod slipped on her reading glasses, then stared in silence at a sample multiple-choice question.
“I don’t want you taking more than two-and-a-half minutes per question,” prodded the tutor.
“I think I eliminated ‘B?’” Himrod ventured.
Twenty minutes later, music began to filter through the closet door, signaling that lunch was over.
“When are you taking it again?” the tutor asked.
“Monday,” Himrod answered nervously.
She planned to use the weekend to cram. But not at the expense of going to church. On Sunday morning, she was supposed to perform a difficult solo. Himrod decided to lean into the challenge.
“I just really wanted to put my mind in a different thought process,” she said. “So I decided to have fun with it and remember why I like singing.”
Sunlight streamed through Bethel AME’s stained-glass windows, bathing the chancel in warm yellow light. The organist plucked out a melody.
“Lord, I want to live, I want to live in Thee,” Himrod began in a voice that was high and true.
The rest of the choir joined in. Phyllis Wideman-Pickett, sitting in a high-backed chair directly in front of her daughter, began to sway. When everyone else grew quiet, Himrod closed her eyes.
“I’m asking you to keep my heart, keep my hands, and keep my soul,” she sang, filling the sanctuary with the full range of her voice, leading her mother to turn around and stare.
“You were hitting notes you used to hit when you were 15,” Wideman-Pickett told her daughter when the service ended.
The next evening, Himrod took the ILTS for the third time.
“Congratulations,” the proctor said as he handed her the results.
That March, the District 65 board voted to build a new $40 million school on the fields outside the old Foster building. Superintendent Horton cast the move as a huge step toward righting a historic wrong.
“Evanston is known for being diverse, but it was carried out on the backs of the families of the Fifth Ward,” he said.
Then, in May, the district received $600,000 in federal funding to expand CREATE 65. A separate $70,000 grant from the Black Educators Initiative of the National Center for Teacher Residencies also came in. Among other things, it would allow the district to provide future residents with emergency funds to help cover the type of surprise expenses that Himrod had encountered.
“When we talk about barriers for African-American educators, so much of it is financial,” said Keilani Goggins, the initiative’s director.
But Himrod’s path wasn’t yet clear.
Like many former Fifth Ward residents, she was skeptical of Horton’s plans for a new school in her old neighborhood.
“It’s kind of like a bittersweet thing for me,” Himrod said. “All those African-American families have either moved away or their houses were bought by other ethnicities. It’s not what it was.”
Turmoil with CREATE 65’s university partners continued despite a change at the top of program.
And most troubling of all was a rumor that District 65 was going to renege on its promise that every resident who successfully finished the year would be guaranteed a full-time teaching position. Instead, they’d have to interview at individual schools. A Zoom meeting intended to clear up the confusion only made things worse.
“Why am I on this call?” Himrod asked herself as antsy residents fired questions at defensive District 65 staff. “All it’s doing is pissing me off.”
CREATE 65’s original cohort of 19 would soon be cut down to 12.
Himrod tried to tune out the discontent. It helped that she thought she had an ace up her sleeve. The district’s early childhood center was about to lose one of its preschool special education teachers. Principal Sharon Sprague wanted to use the change as an opportunity to diversify her mostly white staff.
“I immediately thought about Lisa,” she said.
Before Himrod could let down her guard, however, things went haywire one more time.
In early May, Himrod received an unexpected message. In order to take over the preschool classroom as a fully certified teacher in the fall, it said, she’d have to complete four additional university courses, plus pass a different ILTS exam.
“Are you kidding me?” she asked.
The constant barriers were a reminder of just how much work still needs to be done to build an effective pipeline for K-12 teachers of color, said the experts consulted by Education Week.
But Himrod’s resilience showed why teachers like her, who know firsthand what it’s like to navigate a public education system that’s often bewildering and hostile to non-white families and children, are so valuable.
It remains to be seen whether teacher residencies like CREATE 65 can help public schools close long-standing racial achievement gaps, said Irby, the University of Illinois-Chicago professor. But that’s not the only reason schools should be trying to rebuild the affirming organizational cultures that schools like Foster Elementary once embodied.
“It’s the difference between Howard and Yale,” Irby said. “One has a demonstrated regard for Black people. The other does not.”
In May, Himrod and Sprague worked with the Illinois State Board of Education to arrange for an emergency certificate—if Himrod cleared two more hurdles.
This time, she was ready.
In June, Himrod passed the ILTS early childhood special education exam on her first try.
Over July and August, she completed two of her missing courses—with the help of Superintendent Horton, who found money to help cover the new tuition expense.
And that month, Himrod signed a contract to become a full-time District 65 teacher. Her new salary—$55,000 plus benefits for ten months of work, with guaranteed step bonuses because she was now a union member—would be the most she’d ever made at a single job.
“This has given me the opportunity to start looking for a house and building for retirement,” she said.
With the 2022-23 school year just a few days away, Himrod set to work readying her new classroom.
This time, it was she who got to drape her sweater over the lone adult-sized office chair.
It was she who led her assistants in a discussion about which incoming students liked to bite and which liked to dump toys all over the floor.
And later, when everyone else was gone, it was Himrod who got to choose what went on the walls and bulletin boards. She settled on construction-paper caterpillars with the name and photo of each her new students. That spring, she’d replace them with butterflies.
After half a century and one of the most challenging years of her life, DarLisa Himrod had come full circle.
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
Archival materials courtesy of The Shorefront Legacy Center and Northwestern University.
Benjamin Herold spent the past three years researching and reporting on public school systems in Evanston and other American suburbs. His forthcoming book will be published by Penguin Press in 2023.
Coverage of race, opportunity, and equity is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 19, 2022 edition of Education Week as Inside the Struggle to Rebuild America’s Black Teaching Workforce