In Monroe County and the Finger Lakes, thousands of students could graduate high school without ever seeing a black teacher in their school hallways.
A year-long WXXI News investigation found that five districts in Monroe County don’t employ a single black teacher in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the numbers from the 2015-16 school year. Four districts have only one.
The countywide lack of diversity on teaching staffs is significantly more severe than the national average. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 82 percent of American public school teachers are white. In Monroe County, we found that 92 percent of teachers are white. Outside the city of Rochester, 98 percent of teachers are white.
In every district, the percentage of white teachers is significantly higher than the percentage of white students.
“We all, collectively, have failed on this issue, and we continue to fail just by doing nothing,” said Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association.
For the past 30 years, the U.S. Department of Education has prioritized attracting more candidates of color to the teaching profession. In that time, the numbers of Latino and Asian teachers have increased dramatically, but the number of African-American teachers is down 17 percent.
“Students of color now make up more than half of the students who attend public schools in America," said Cynthia Cole, spokesperson for the Department of Education. "It’s important for all students, and particularly for students of color, to have role models and champions of all backgrounds to connect with and emulate.
“And to improve education outcomes, and to also narrow opportunity gaps, we have to increase the diversity of the teacher workforce,” Cole said. “And we have to be intentional about this.”
Why it matters
At East Rochester High School, ninth-grade student Mariam Doumbia has found her passion.
“I love music," she said. "I listen to music all day. I will sing all day.”
She signed up for choir this fall, but she soon began to wonder if her voice was a fit.
“We really didn’t sing songs that go toward African-American culture,” she explained. "My voice is a different type of voice. I can’t sing like a Caucasian person would sing. I sing differently. I sing different types of music.”
All 115 of East Rochester's teachers are white; it's the only district in the county without a single teacher of color. Mariam said that without teachers who might better relate to her, she decided to drop the class she loves.
“See, I didn’t want to trouble anybody, because, with Caucasian students, they would have to get used to doing that type of music," she said.
At East Rochester, there are 201 students of color; that's nearly 21 percent. Other local districts have similar versions of the same challenge. For example, Gates Chili has far more black students than black teachers by percentage. If the Gates teaching staff reflected the student population, there would be 65 black teachers. In reality, there are three.
In the city of Rochester, the percentage of teachers of color is higher, but still nowhere close to parity. Rochester students of color make up 90 percent of the population, while teachers of color make up 25 percent.
Research shows that when students of color have teachers of color, their test scores in core subjects tend to rise. They graduate at a higher rate and are incarcerated at a lower rate. Then there are stories like Mariam Doumbia's, which illustrate the impact on students but are difficult to track with statistics.
East Rochester Superintendent Mark Linton took over the job in the fall of 2015. It wasn’t until two months into the school year that he realized there were no teachers of color in the district.
“We would love to have a more diverse teaching staff, and not just for minority students," Linton said. "I think it’s important for Caucasian students to see different types of people.”
Eleanor Lenoe agrees. She’s a senior at Brighton who is half-white, half-Asian. In her district, 98.5 percent of the teachers are white.
“If you compare the diversity of our teachers to the diversity of our students, it’s a radical difference," she said. "If we had a more diverse group of teachers, we could get more firsthand experiences that are more authentic.”
That sentiment was echoed by Shamir Caraway, a black 11th grade student at East Rochester. Caraway praised his teachers, saying that they demonstrate passion and sensitivity. But he added, “Growing up, being African-American is sometimes a struggle, and I would like to have a teacher I can turn to, to kind of relate to that.”
Understanding the causes and impacts
Linton described a scenario that we heard from his colleagues in other districts over and over during our investigation throughout the past year. When a single teaching job opens up, his district tends to receive several hundred applications. Out of that wave, 20 candidates will make the next round of interviews.
“In my 20 years as an administrator, I’ve maybe had interviews with two minority candidates," Linton said. "In 20 years.”
Here's one possible answer for why that is: Mariam Doumbia says very few black students are even considering a teaching career.
“Black students didn’t have black teachers to inspire them to be black teachers," she said. "We see more African-Americans in sports, music, art, so that’s what we gravitate toward.”
Our series of reports this week will more deeply examine some of the causes and impacts of our particular lack of teacher diversity. WXXI has created an interactive map where readers can search for the diversity statistics in Monroe County districts.
Linton hopes to convince Mariam to get back into the school choir. For now, she’ll sing at home, with her friends — wherever she feels comfortable.
All data in this story is from the 2015-16 school year. Click here to see all the data from Monroe County, Erie County, Onondaga County, the Finger Lakes region, and regional colleges.
Degrees of Diversity is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.