With 2 ​percent increase in 2018, diversifying teachers at Cambridge schools is a slow process

Cambridge's percentage of teachers of color has risen 2 percent since December 2017, according to December 2018 data from Cambridge Public Schools. (Graphic by Charlie Scanlan/BU News Service)

By Charlie Scanlan
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE – As of December 2018, roughly a quarter – 24 percent – of Cambridge Public Schools’ teachers are people of color, representing a 2 percent, district-wide increase in one year. But real change is a slow process, according to school administrators.

Both teachers and student groups like the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School called for increased teacher diversity in the district in 2017. Cambridge’s teacher diversity initiative began that December.

Currently, over 60 percent of Cambridge students identify as non-white, and, by 2020, the district aims to have 30 percent educators of color.

“Representation matters, you can’t be what you can’t see. At its core it has to do with our students wanting that and asking us for that,” said Ramon De Jesus, Cambridge’s program manager for diversity development, during an interview in Harvard Square’s Tatte Bakery and Cafe.

De Jesus was hired in October 2017 when the role was created to oversee the recruitment and retention of teachers of color.

According to official data from CPS, of the 88 new teachers hired in 2018, 39 are people of color, representing almost half of all new hires. The diversity of the applicant pool also improved.

“We have made changes to job descriptions to overhaul language that’s used to reflect our commitment to equity,” said Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Salim in a phone interview. Job descriptions now encourage diverse candidates to apply, he said.

Resignations of teachers of color have also declined over the past three years, from 13 departures in 2016 to seven this year.

As of October 2018, the percentage of teachers of color was 23 percent in elementary schools (grades K-5), 30 percent in upper schools (grades 6-8), and 25 percent at Cambridge Rindge and Latin (grades 9-12). Four schools have already met or exceeded the 30 percent goal two years ahead of schedule.

Students of color, especially black and Latino, are significantly less likely to receive a bachelor’s degree in education than white college students, according to the Center for American Progress. De Jesus calls this disparity the “elephant in the room.”

To support recruitment efforts, Cambridge is turning to its paraprofessional staff, including teachers’ aides and classroom assistants, 40 percent of whom are people of color.

The district is launching a pilot program this spring to support assistant staff who are interested in becoming teachers by providing them with resources for the qualifying exam. Cambridge will be able to promote from within the district rather than recruiting from outside sources.

Despite its struggles with diversity, Cambridge has one of the most diverse public school teaching staffs in the state, second only to Boston Public Schools, according to the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Boston also has a gap between the percentage of students of color and teachers of color.

Students say progress too slow

Some CPS students aren’t satisfied with the district’s slow, but steady progress. Part of a Nov. 27 School Committee meeting was dedicated to a roundtable with Black Student Union students, which demanded quicker action.

De Jesus acknowledged improving the climate at CRLS is a work in progress.

“Although over half of the new incoming teachers at CRLS identify as teachers of color, that has not yet been visualized and seen by the majority of our students,” said De Jesus. “Still only a quarter of teachers at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School are teachers of color, and while that represents a three percent increase, the kids are looking at us like, ‘So what? What’s three percent?’”

Other new programs from the initiative include a public online diversity dashboard for residents to check progress and anti-bias training for the administrators and committee members in partnership with the Disruptive Education Equity Project, according to Salim.

CPS is also launching Employee Resource Groups for educators of color, starting with a book group for the newly hired teachers.

De Jesus is optimistic that the goal can be met by the 2020 deadline. “We’ve found evidence that reaching 30 percent is possible, while acknowledging that there’s a lot of work to still be done,” he said.

“Any feedback that moves us closer to reflecting the students that we serve is feedback that I’ll take,” he continued. “If there are better ways of doing this, I want to know.”

This article was also featured in the Cambridge Chronicle.

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