Pedro Cruz can relate to the teens he instructs in Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción’s after-school and summer programs. As a young Latinx man in Boston, he grew up in IBA’s rooms himself and is now a respected mentor and teacher.
One of the most critical lessons we learned, after we came together as the Community Learning Collaborative in Boston — a group of four leaders of color from prominent local nonprofits — and launched pandemic learning pods, is that students of color achieve and thrive when teachers look like them. Time and again, educational research bears this out, but finding ways to bridge the gap and reduce inequities has not followed suit.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 53 percent of public school students in the United States identify as people of color while 80 percent of teachers are white, and 40 percent of public schools do not have a single teacher of color. Those numbers reflect the reality in Boston too.
Yet when students have the same backgrounds and experiences as their teachers, research finds that they are more likely to complete high school, go to college, face fewer disciplinary problems, and are more often referred to gifted and talented programs when teacher-student understanding, expectation, and shared experiences are aligned.
Building a more representative pipeline of teachers is part of the answer, and during the coronavirus pandemic, we have proved to ourselves, our students (82 percent of whom identify as Black or Latino), our teaching staff, and our families that educator diversity matters. When planning 12 learning pods for 165 students, we were intentional in attracting well-qualified Black and Latino educators and counselors. This included discussing outreach strategies, networking, and sites to post job openings. The strategy paid off. In the end, 95 percent of the staff that were hired for the program were Black or Latino.
Team members often came from the same communities as the children they served and were well-positioned to quickly build communicative, trusting relationships with students and families. We know from students, parents, teachers, and grandparents that young people excelled. Independent surveys by Bellwether Education Partners confirmed that 96 percent of surveyed parents from the pods said it is important for their children to see themselves in their teachers in terms of race, ethnicity, and language, and 76 percent said their children felt closer to pod leaders than their regular school teachers.
We believe this model could be the beginning of a much-needed reimagining of education in Boston.
Another step in the right direction is the Educator Diversity Act, a bill in the Legislature that aims to address the issue by attracting more diverse professionals by offering new, alternative teaching certifications, better data collection by the state about diversity, requiring districts to appoint diversity officers or teams, and establishing educator diversity councils. It’s an issue that one of our organizations, Latinos for Education, has been leading in the Commonwealth, as well as in the Educator Diversity Coalition, to advance legislative effort as well.
The experiences of the past year, both positive and negative, have changed many students’ and families’ goals and expectations from schools. We have an opportunity to reimagine and rebuild education that works for all families, and that starts with students seeing themselves in the educators around them. It’s a critical ingredient for successfully educating the whole child.
Children can’t be what they can’t see, so let’s take this opportunity to surround them with educators who look like them, share their lived experiences, and who can be a mirror for them. Let’s not be satisfied with a return to normal. Normal wasn’t that good for many of our children before. With more forethought and action, we have a chance to develop more leaders like Pedro Cruz.
Amanda Fernandez is CEO and cofounder of Latinos for Education; James Morton is president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Boston; Robert Lewis Jr. is president and founder of The BASE; and Vanessa Calderón-Rosado is executive director of Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción. Together they lead Community Learning Collaborative.