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Officials in Boston seeking black teachers

More diversity is recruitment goal; imbalance could bring litigation

A decline in the number of black teachers in Boston public schools has put the city in violation of a federal court order, prompting officials to step up efforts to recruit and retain teachers of color.

For the first time in years, school officials are launching an aggressive marketing campaign that includes posting advertisements on the T, in national education publications, and on a new website that will go online soon. They plan to tap alumni networks of current employees who graduated from historically black colleges or other campuses with diverse student populations.

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The goal, school officials say, is to establish a teaching force whose demographics reflect the student population.

“It’s simply the right thing to do,” said interim Superintendent John McDonough.

It is also a legal requirement.

‘We are challenged to show people we really mean business here because I think there has been a lot of lost faith. ’

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The school system’s largely white teaching force — instructing a student population that is 87 percent black, Latino, or Asian — has been a sensitive issue and subject of litigation that dates back to the tumultuous days of desegregation in the 1970s.

Decades ago, Federal Judge Arthur Garrity required that at least 25 percent of the district’s overall teaching force be composed of blacks and 10 percent of other minorities.

He also specifically mandated that each of the city’s three exam schools maintain at least those minimum levels.

The ruling led to a flurry of hiring that brought Boston Public Schools into compliance.

But the percentage of black teachers districtwide has been dropping in recent years, falling to 21 percent this school year, putting the system again out of compliance, and making it vulnerable to further litigation.

Representation of black teachers at the city’s top two exam schools, Boston Latin School and Boston Latin Academy, is even lower, 16 percent and 13 percent respectively.

Defying the trend is the city’s third exam school, the John D. O’Bryant, where 38 percent of teachers are black.

The school system and all three exam schools remain in compliance with the other part of the order that pertains to other racial and ethnic minorities.

School officials said they do not know why the percentage of black teachers in the 4,400-teacher system has been slipping.

They noted that hiring appears not to be keeping pace with the number of teachers who have been retiring in recent years.

Advocates say the recruitment push is long overdue.

Johnny McInnis, a Boston Public Schools music teacher who is president of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, said that by boosting recruitment now, “it will help to bring the percentages up over time. . . . It’s essential for the district to have a diverse staff.”

Many educators and civil rights advocates believe a teaching force that reflects the student population presents greater opportunities for more teachers to connect with their students and keep them engaged in their learning.

They also say the teachers can serve as role models.

And in a system where 45 percent of students’ first language is not English, a more diverse faculty offers a chance that students might have a teacher who speaks their native language.

But debate persists on how far school systems need to diversify their teaching forces, with skeptics arguing that top-notch teaching will always prevail over race, gender, or age.

To help reverse the decline of black teachers, as well as to further diversify the entire teaching force, McDonough said the school system’s chief equity officer will regain authority to review and approve new hires by principals — a past practice that officials believe helped the department. The system hires hundreds of new teachers each year.

He also said that the school system will give so-called “letters of reasonable assurance” to provisional teachers of color who receive good performance reviews earlier in the year. This could dissuade them from job hunting, especially as schools mull staffing cuts.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said he supports the effort to diversify the teaching ranks, blaming the school department for ignoring the issue too long.

“Central office has not provided consistent direction to principals that hiring ought to be more reflective of the student body,” Stutman said. “Given the tremendous amount of vacancies and a workforce that turns over 10 percent a year, there has been ample opportunity to diversify the teaching force.”

Although the school system’s lack of compliance opens it to litigation, legal action is not a certainty.

The Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, which pushed the legal battle that established the minimum staffing requirements, has preferred to work with the school system on finding solutions rather than going to court, said Barbara Fields, an executive board member and a former chief equity officer for BPS.

“It’s very troubling we were going in the wrong direction,” said Fields, noting the association has repeatedly raised concerns over the last several years.

But she added, “It seems to us that the district under Mr. McDonough is ready to move forward and do what is right for the children in the district.”

The School Committee expressed support and enthusiasm, after hearing a presentation on the workforce diversity efforts last Wednesday night. But one member, Margaret McKenna, a former Lesley University president, implored school officials to follow through.

“We are challenged to show people we really mean business here because I think there has been a lot of lost faith that the school district can actually make this happen,” said McKenna, who is also a civil rights attorney. “We have to make those hires this spring or people will say ‘same old, same old, it’s not going to happen.’ ”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

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