When local teaching jobs open up, superintendents say they rarely see candidates of color. New research indicates the pipeline has leaks at almost every stage -- from high school, through college graduation and job retention.
Karen DeAngelis, an associate dean at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education, set out on a research project with colleagues from Southern Illinois University. They had access to multiple years of data, tracking tens of thousands of students. From the outset, they knew that students of color graduate high school and attend college at lower rates.
But that can lead to a stereotype, which their study debunked.
"The story is a little bit more complicated than, 'Students of color are less academically prepared going into college, and as a result, we don't see as many teachers of color.' I mean, that's not at all what our data showed," DeAngelis explained.
Leak in the pipeline: high school
DeAngelis found that there are more than enough students of color to become teachers -- if they have the necessary supports, and if they want to. But there's a significant gap, by race, in the desire to pursue teaching careers. Her team found that 4 percent of white high school students say they want to become teachers, but fewer than 1 percent of black students say the same.
"With our data, we can't say why that is," DeAngelis said.
Here's one possible explanation: Black students have far fewer mentors who look like them. East Rochester freshman Mariam Doumbia put it this way: "Black students didn’t have black teachers to inspire them to be black teachers. We saw more African-American people in arts, music and sports, so that's what we gravitate toward."
Beyond mentors, there's money -- or the lack of it. And this is more than just an issue for all teacher candidates. Paul Burgett, a vice president at the University of Rochester, explained that salary matters in a particular way for African-American students.
"One of the realities that I think African-Americans, and those who have been disenfranchised from the great American dream historically, have had to deal with is the inability to generate wealth," Burgett said. "And it seems to me entirely normal that those who have been without wealth would look at opportunities going forward that might help to provide them with that."
Here are two more cases that bolster that idea: Brianna Sellers and Drew Lanham. Sellers is a senior in the education program at St. John Fisher College. She's on track to graduate this spring. Growing up in Harlem, she envisioned herself as a teacher, even if those around her did not.
"When I decided to become an education major, my family was like, 'Brie, are you sure?' " she said. "Everyone always says, 'Why are you gonna become a teacher? They don't make any money.' "
Counselors at Sellers' school urged her to consider other fields, such as nursing or science. That mirrors the experience of Drew Lanham. He teaches at Clemson University, and he's become a kind of Internet sensation through his video, "Rules for the Black Birdwatcher."
But Lanham almost missed his chance to pursue his dream career. In high school, a counselor warned him against careers like teaching.
"They wanted to tell me that, 'Well, you're good at math and science, you're black, so you should be an engineer. Because you can make money there. We know that money is important to you.' But nobody ever really asked what was important to me," Lanham said during a recent visit to Rochester. He was a guest of the Seneca Park Zoo Society and spoke to local students about ecology and education.
Lanham got a scholarship to engineering school, but explained that one day he was walking across campus and decided that he wasn't going to let anyone else decide his future.
"I stopped in my tracks," he said. "I went back to my apartment, and I ate a bowl of Fruit Loops. And I called my scholarship sponsor, and I asked if I could change, and I'd been begging -- 'Can I change? Can I change? Can I change?' And she said no. She said, 'if you do this, you're going to lose your scholarship.' And I said, 'I guess I'll lose my scholarship.' "
Leak in the pipeline: college teacher prep programs
Karen DeAngelis discovered that the biggest leak in the pipeline came in teacher prep programs. Students of color drop out of these programs at a higher rate than white students.
Combined, roughly 15 percent of the students in teaching programs at SUNY Brockport, SUNY Geneseo, Nazareth College and St. John Fisher College are students of color. But only about 10 percent of the graduates earning teaching certificates from those programs are students of color.
Again, DeAngelis warns against stereotypes. She said there's no evidence indicating students of color struggle with the rigor of the classes. Often, the issue is resources.
Former Fairport superintendent Bill Cala tells the story of an African-American student who wanted to become a teacher -- but never got there.
"Last year, one of our really great students got into Temple," Cala said. "He made it halfway through the year. One semester. What happened? Money. Every bit of it was money. Absolutely fabulous kid, and this is a story that repeats itself over and over again."
Among other things, Cala wants to see the cost of higher education reduced to be more inclusive.
Leak in the pipeline: becoming tenured teachers
Even the students who get teaching certificates don't always become tenured teachers. DeAngelis found that black teachers leave the profession more than teachers from any other racial background.
"This is another challenging area to fully understand," DeAngelis said. "We can't sum it up in a sentence or two."
DeAngelis said there's no evidence that districts are racially discriminating against teachers by denying tenure. In fact, many districts are trying new approaches to recruit candidates of color. East Rochester Superintendent Mark Linton suggested changing the rules to allow candidates to declare, on their initial application, their racial background.
"I think it would open the door for us to meet people of color that we wouldn't know any other way," Linton said. "I think having it as an option is fair."
But why are teachers of color leaving for other careers? Research indicates that most teachers of color teach in urban settings. The Rochester City School District employs 403 black teachers; the rest of Monroe County combined employs 69. Teachers in urban settings are exposed to more poverty and violence. The high turnover rate could stem from the challenge of teaching in those environments.
There's one more factor in play: proximity. DeAngelis said there is a very small distance most teaching candidates are interested in traveling to find work.
"That distance is about within 15 miles, the vast majority of teachers end up working, compared to where they went to high school themselves," DeAngelis said. "So I think there needs to be concerted efforts within the geographic spaces to build pipelines. Districts need to understand that teachers aren't coming from all over the country to Rochester."
There is a growing number of "grow your own" programs in western New York, including Today's Students, Tomorrow's Teachers, and the Teaching and Learning Institute at East High. DeAngelis said that to improve the local pipeline, outreach should begin when students are in middle school. Many colleges wait until students are 16 years old before promoting their educational discounts and opportunities.
Brianna Sellers is willing to travel a long way for a job, and she's ignored everyone who told her to find another career. "I'm ready," she said. "I'm ready to get out here and teach. Whatever the teaching field throws at me, I'm ready for it."
For now, her story is the exception, not the rule.
All data in this story is from the 2015-16 school year.
Degrees of Diversity is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.