Like countless other school systems across the nation, Florida’s Palm Beach County school district is facing multiple challenges this year: budget cuts, accelerated teacher retirements, a shortage of substitute teachers, and complex health regulations, to name a few.
“In the midst of the pandemic, we lost resources. And we gained new responsibilities,” said Edwine Michel, director of recruitment and retention for the district of more than 190,000 students.
Based on the circumstances, maintaining the status quo this year might feel like a victory. Instead, Michel says the district is moving ahead with two critical and inter-related initiatives that, even in a normal year, would be ambitious: increasing the district’s teachers of color and boosting student achievement.
Michel boils down the challenge this way: 70 percent of the district’s children are students of color, while 40 percent of teachers are people of color.
“We want to make them match,” he said.
To make headway, the district has hired three new staff members for its human resources department to work on a number of efforts directly related to innovative and best practices around recruiting and retaining teachers and school administrators.
It has also hired 15 instructional coaches who work with teacher leaders and principals to support a variety of efforts. Among them: the development of an equity-focused talent management dashboard, creation of an educator career ladder and development pathway aligned with the district’s diversity, equity, and inclusion goals, and strengthening existing alternative certification and “grow our own” programs.
Teachers of color linked to academic gains for students of color
A federal grant and outside partner has made those hires possible. Palm Beach County, in concert with three partner districts in other states, is one of 13 grant recipients to receive federal money under the U.S. Department of Education’s 2020 Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program. It is working with Insight Education Group, an education consulting organization that partners with schools and districts to accelerate professional growth.
The federally funded project for the four districts provides a total of $6.7 million in the first year, with a projected total of $20.3 million over five years.
Called Project IGNITE, the program provides resources for Palm Beach and three other districts—Jackson, Miss., Syracuse, N.Y., and the Greenville Independent school district in Greenville, Texas—to work together on interventions that impact student achievement, from instructional coaching to recruitment and retention efforts.
“Without district and school level coordination, these [approaches] sometimes are done in isolation from one another and are less effective,” said Jason Stricker, founder of IEG. He explains how, for instance, a district may work hard to recruit more teachers of color—but unless it takes a systemic approach to analyzing how and if it’s providing an equitable and safe work environment, the teachers may not stay.
Creating an equitable workspace matters for several reasons. Students of color taught by teachers whose racial and/or ethnic background matches their own are more likely to achieve better academic performance and improved graduation rates, and are more likely to attend college, according to research by the Learning Policy Institute.
A 2018 study found that having just one Black teacher by 3rd grade increased Black students’ likelihood of attending college by 13 percent; those who had two Black teachers were 32 percent more likely to do so. But in many states, students attend schools and districts that do not have a single teacher of color on staff, according to the Education Trust.
The Palm Beach County district was already engaged in efforts to increase teacher workforce diversity, likely giving it a leg up in being chosen for the federal support, Michel said.
The district’s human resources chief, Gonzalo La Cava, has long made this a priority. One strategy has involved assigning individual employees, dubbed HR partners, to work directly with principals in the district who struggle to attract and retain teachers.
In one case, an HR partner helped the principal recruit qualified candidates from Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-serving institutions, resulting in 27 hires at his high-needs school.
Demonstrating a willingness to take on challenging work in creative ways and to partner with other districts helped Palm Beach County land a spot in this project that ultimately seeks to foster student achievement. And while there’s no guarantee of how the federal government will continue to fund such initiatives, experts are cautiously optimistic about their future.
While the Teacher Incentive Fund, the predecessor to TSL, is set to sunset soon—its final cohort ends on Sept. 30, 2021—TSL is slated to continue until there is a change in the law, according to Orman Feres of the U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher and School Leader Incentive Program.
That’s good news for school systems that, like Palm Beach County, may require outside resources to reach aspirational goals. “Our workforce plan had just blown up,” Michel said. “With more work, and less people, this [grant] was the only way we were going to do this work.”