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This is the second story in a three-part series about educator diversity.
BARNSTABLE — At first, Hope Taylor dismissed the job offer. Why would she — a young Black woman, new college graduate, and Bronx, N.Y., native — consider teaching high school history on Cape Cod, where she would be one of the only teachers of color?
Then she interviewed at Barnstable High School and saw that students were more diverse than she had realized. She thought about where she could make the biggest difference. And in the end, she set aside her doubts and took the job in the fall of 1995.
It was a milestone year in the Cape’s largest school district. Barnstable hired a half dozen or more teachers of color that fall, Taylor said — an unprecedented number that warranted a story in the local paper. She remembers her excitement at the change that was beginning.
But 25 years later, Taylor is still waiting to see real teacher diversity. There are fewer educators of color at the high school now than when she started, she said, and all those hired alongside her are gone, except her husband.
Across Cape Cod, school districts have failed to recruit and retain enough teachers of color to keep pace with a changing population. In Barnstable, 38 percent of the district’s 4,700 students now identify as people of color. But among the 357 classroom teachers, only 4 percent — 14 teachers across nine schools — are people of color, according to state data.
The gaps loom even wider in Provincetown and Nantucket, two small but highly diverse districts where students of color make up the majority. Yet teachers in Provincetown are 86 percent white and 93 percent are white on Nantucket.
The problem is not unique to the Cape and Islands. Statewide, 91.5 percent of all teachers are white, compared to 57 percent of students, state data show. Improvement has been slow across Massachusetts, inching from 6.7 to 8.5 percent teachers of color in a dozen years, but most places on the Cape have yet to reach 5 percent. Some districts have been slow to address the problem head on. Others say they have struggled for years to overcome the Cape’s reputation as a haven for white retirees and vacationers — a turnoff for some job seekers of color that persists in spite of striking demographic changes.
To solve the problem, many Cape districts are doubling down on recruitment in their own backyards, seeking homegrown teaching candidates of color who already feel at ease in the tourist mecca.
The cost of continued failure is profound. Studies show that students of color have a stronger sense of belonging, get better grades, and are more likely to go to college when they have some teachers like themselves as mentors and role models. But white students lose out too when teachers are not diverse, on opportunities to shed bias and prepare for the world beyond the twin Cape bridges.
“For kids, a teacher is an authority figure,” said Augusta Davis, a Black 2014 graduate of Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, who now attends graduate school at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “I never had a Black teacher, ever … so I made the connection that power and authority is white. I think I’m going to be unpacking that for the rest of my life.”
Visit Taylor at Barnstable High School, where she recently made the switch from teacher to administrator, and the importance of Black staff comes into focus.
A common area outside her office functions as a de facto lounge for students of color. On a recent late spring afternoon, five Black students gathered there in cozy chairs and described the comfort they find in Taylor’s presence.
“Barnstable says it’s a safe and welcoming place, but when you don’t see staff of color, you question that,” one said.
An eighth-grader, Ka’Ron Ford, nodded in agreement. “If Ms. Taylor wasn’t here …” His voice trailed off. “She understands what we go through, and helps us deal with it.”
Twenty years ago, the Barnstable district was 88 percent white. Even a decade ago, students of color made up less than 20 percent of enrollment. But change accelerated in the last five years. From 2016 to 2021, white enrollment in Barnstable schools fell from 75 to 62 percent, according to state data, while Black and Hispanic enrollment increased to 8 and 20 percent respectively.
Barnstable Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown arrived on the Cape five years ago from Fall River, where she led a larger, more diverse school district. She soon realized things were different on the Cape.
“Race was not discussed [in Barnstable] — at all. And it struck me as odd,” Mayo-Brown recalled. “I realized that if we were going to address it, we would need to develop a vocabulary, and a way of talking about it.”
Starting a conversation about race was hard. Trying to hire more teachers of color was harder.
Nationwide, fewer young people are pursuing teaching careers. From 2008 to 2015, the number of college students earning education degrees fell 15 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Teacher retention may be an even bigger hurdle, with the turnover rate for teachers of color surpassing that of white teachers by 20 to 30 percent.
The Cape faces added challenges: A remote location. Record-high housing costs. And diversity that long lagged behind other parts of the state, diminishing its appeal for some teaching candidates.
Taylor remembers how uncomfortable she felt as a Black newcomer to Barnstable in 1995, and how close she came, many times, to leaving. Her first two years there, she went home to New York every weekend. She missed the city’s diversity and her family, but her needs were practical, too: She couldn’t find a Black hair salon on the Cape.
Taylor attended mostly white schools as a child and graduated from a mostly white college. “I was used to racism,” she said. Still, she was shocked by the racist remarks she heard from some Barnstable students, parents, and staff. It helped that the principal at the time was Black and that the school had a new antiracism student group, where Taylor found a role as faculty adviser.
Taylor and her husband, Alik — a fellow educator who moved to the Cape with her, and launched his own career there, after a job offer elsewhere fell through — have mentored other young transplants over the years.
“It’s a huge culture shock, being here,” she said. “We try to pull them in when they come and help them find that Black community.”
A few miles away at Barnstable United Elementary School, where nearly 40 percent of the 700 students are Black, Asian, Hispanic, or mixed race, Brandon Byrd rarely forgets that he is the only Black teacher. His white colleagues frequently invite him to visit their classes; just his occasional presence there is a boost to their students of color.
In his own classroom, Byrd said, he knows some white students are nervous when they show up in September, because they haven’t known a Black man before. Simply by being their teacher all year, and being himself, he will help to shatter preconceptions.
“I tell them, I hope you have another Black teacher, but if you don’t, you have this,” he said. “By Thanksgiving, they know me — that I’m a teddy bear; that I love music and having fun; that I advocate for kids with autism.”
Byrd landed on the Cape because his wife, also a teacher, grew up there and wanted to be close to family. The couple’s path to Barnstable is widely seen as the Cape’s best hope for increasing teacher diversity: cultivating more homegrown candidates who have roots and relationships there.
Local connections have helped fuel recent gains in Barnstable, where seven of the district’s 25 Black employees — a group that includes clerical staff and custodians as well as teachers, administrators, and others — were hired in the past year, said Mayo-Brown, the superintendent.
“Even if you don’t have teaching credentials yet, we still want you, as a paraprofessional, to get your foot in the door,” she said.
Andre King, a 2000 graduate of Barnstable High School, worked as a substitute there while earning his teaching degree, and filled in last year for another teacher. King, who is Black, will start a new job in the fall teaching history in Sandwich, another Cape district.
“There’s this idea you hear in education, ‘We’re looking, but we can’t find people of color.’ But you don’t need to look any further than your own classrooms,” he said. “If you’re supporting and encouraging all students, and creating a pipeline, then you should have the teachers you need for the future.”
If the Cape seems remote to some candidates of color, then Provincetown, its distant tip, is even more of a stretch. When the town of 3,000 year-round residents recently hired a new town manager, there were no self-identified people of color among the 117 applicants, said Ngina Lythcott, a search committee member who also serves on the School Committee.
Yet Provincetown’s students are the most diverse on Cape Cod. More than half are people are color. A large percentage are Jamaican-Americans whose families once worked seasonally on the Cape and have now settled there permanently. Similar dynamics have fueled diversity on Nantucket, where immigrants from Jamaica, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic have flocked to find jobs and better schools for their children.
“It’s a local secret,” said Provincetown Superintendent Suzanne Scallion, “that our climate is incredibly welcoming to families of color.”
Making that diversity less secret is key to attracting more teachers of color. So is a steady focus on specific needs. As she tries to recruit a teacher from Jamaica, Scallion is polling local residents first, hoping somebody already in town might know an adventurous Jamaican educator.
But there are problems networking can’t solve. Housing prices on the Cape have spiraled out of reach for most educators. The median home sales price in Provincetown topped $1.5 million this year, and the town has lost teachers who couldn’t find permanent housing.
Changes in leadership also can slow momentum.
In Barnstable, Hope Taylor felt fresh optimism in recent years, as the new superintendent made it OK to talk about race. Asked by Mayo-Brown to lead a book club reading of “White Fragility” last summer, after George Floyd’s death, Taylor was stunned when 120 staff and teachers chose to participate.
But it remains to be seen if progress will continue: Mayo-Brown, the superintendent since 2016, announced in June that she plans to leave Barnstable next year.
As Taylor looks back on her 25 years in the district — and ahead to a future when Cape schools will be even more diverse — she strives to shore up support where she can. Year after year, she works to build trust between students of color and white teachers and advocates for younger teachers of color whose positions are not yet fully secure.
And she keeps asking the question she once imagined would have been answered long ago:
“When I retire, who’s going to be here for them?”
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.