School districts struggle to hire minority teachers
Posted May 13
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Mary Tranguch — a second grade teacher at Heights Murray Elementary School in Wilkes-Barre — knows first hand how minority students can benefit from having minority teachers.
"I often get smiles from students when they see I am African American — especially new students to our school," Tranguch said. "One case in particular was when a student was called 'dark' by another peer. They were upset about it. So I had a great conversation about being colors of every shade and how each one of us is unique. And I asked them, 'Do you believe this about yourself?' And they said, 'no.' I said, 'I have brown skin, and I love it. And it makes me who I am, and just because my skin is brown, I'm made up of many things. Be proud of you and embrace yourself.' They were so happy for this encouragement."
A 2003 graduate of Coughlin High School, Tranguch attended Wilkes-Barre Area School District schools and has been a district teacher for 10 years. Wilkes-Barre Area — the largest school district in northern Luzerne County with the most racially diverse student population — has struggled to hire more minority teachers.
According to the state Department of Education, about 46 percent of the district's student population was white last year. With enrollment at 6,904, almost 19 percent of students were black and almost 28 percent were Hispanic.
Meanwhile, the district reported 506 of 513 district teachers — 98.6 percent — this year are white.
"We know we need to do a better job to have a more diverse team," Wilkes-Barre Area Superintendent Brian Costello said.
It's not just an issue in Wilkes-Barre Area.
In Hazleton Area, 677 of 682 teachers — 99.3 percent — were white last year, while 48 percent of students were white, according to the state.
The white share of the student populations is 74 percent or more in other Luzerne County school districts, and the percentage of minority teachers in each of those districts is two or less.
The U.S. teaching workforce has become more diverse, but progress nationally came at a relatively modest pace, according a 2015 study from the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute. From 1987 to 2012, the minority portion of teachers nationally has grown from 12 percent to 17 percent, but the minority share of the student population increased from 27 percent to 44 percent over that time.
In Philadelphia, nearly 59 percent of students were black in 2012, and almost 18 percent were Hispanic. But 69 percent of Philadephia's teachers were white.
The most significant hurdle has not been recruiting and hiring minority teachers — it's been attrition. Minority teachers are leaving the profession at a higher rate, the 2015 study concluded. Reasons cited included school closures, layoffs after the last recession, and minority teachers quitting due to feeling they have a lack of autonomy at work and little input into decisions.
While serving as Wilkes-Barre NAACP president, Ron Felton regularly raised the issue of hiring more minority teachers in Wilkes-Barre Area.
"Did you know there's a good chance that a minority or non-minority student can go through 12 years of school and not come in contract with a minority teacher?" Felton asked at a school board meeting in 2013.
In that year, the district had 486 white teachers, two black teachers and one Hispanic teacher, according to the state Department of Education. The district reports it currently has 506 white teachers, five black teachers and two multi-racial teachers.
Nepotism and cronyism had an effect on who was hired as teachers in Wilkes-Barre Area over the years, Felton said Thursday.
"I think it played a big role when it came to minority candidates," Felton said, adding some teachers were hired because of "pay-to-play."
The Rev. Shawn Walker, the first African-American to serve on the school board, said he wanted to join the board in 2013 to work on an anti-nepotism policy. In 2014, the board approved a policy requiring six votes on the nine-member board to hire professional employees who are relatives of board members, the superintendent and assistants to the superintendent.
Felton said Bernard Prevuznak, the Wilkes-Barre Area superintendent from 2013 to 2016, was the first district official "willing to work with us."
Prevuznak arranged meetings with area colleges and began working to get more minority teachers, Felton said.
"We realize that this is not going to happen overnight. It's going to take some time," Felton said. "You have to have a sincere, aggressive outreach. You got to give a person a reason as to why they should come here, the cost of housing might be lower and stuff like that, and once you attract them you then have to be able to retain them."
In October, the school district started working with a California-based organization, Minority Success Network, to provide affirmative action advice and post job openings.
Wilkes-Barre Area School Board President Denise Thomas said she supports efforts to hire more minority teachers and is aware of benefits from having a more diverse teaching staff.
"I am absolutely for it," Thomas said.
But finances have currently forced the district to limit the hiring of new employees, Thomas said. In fact, officials have said they want to reduce the number of teachers employed through attrition by not replacing retiring teachers.
A year ago, the school board cut 37 jobs through furloughs by eliminating or scaling back art, library, family/consumer-science and industrial-art programs.
Costello said he hopes the district's new contract for substitute teachers and guest teachers will result in a more diverse staff. The district entered into a contract with Substitute Teacher Service, a company based in Delaware County, in December.
Under the contract, the company is responsible for providing the district with substitute and guest teachers. The guest teacher program allows anyone with a four-year degree to take an online training program to prepare them for teaching as a substitute.
Tranguch — who says she is "multi-racial with African American being a higher percentage of my diverse background" — said a more diverse teaching staff would help Wilkes-Barre Area students.
"Society, or humans, often feel comfortable and relate to those who they share commonalities with. That is only human," Tranguch said. "I would love to see more diverse teachers, especially of Latino descent, because of our growing population. However, this is not just a district problem. We need more applications of multicultural staff. I have often have seen fabulous potential educators that leave the area because they feel there is nothing exciting or engaging in our area to stay."
Tranguch said a source of inspiration for her at Coughlin High School was Belinda Tabron, a teacher who became a district administrator and retired last year as assistant principal at Solomon Plains Elementary/Junior High School.
"Mrs. Tabron was one of my only minority teachers that I happened to have for art and photography. She was also our multicultural club advisor and an activist. She really inspired me to be a positive and active member when it came to cultural awareness. She taught me so much about being a young black woman, that education and realistic life goals were attainable and I could go as far as I wanted as an African American woman," Tranguch said.