CPS lags in hiring black teachers

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Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Public Schools hired more than 10,000 teachers over the past decade or so, but with only about 13 percent of them black, the number of African-American educators at CPS has fallen to a modern-day record low.

In the 2007-2008 school year, of the 22,773 CPS teachers, 31.4 percent, or 7,168, were black, according to Illinois State Board of Education data for traditional CPS schools, not charters.

Currently, 4,910 – or 22.6 percent – of the 21,726 non-charter teachers in CPS are black, CPS data shows.

The drop off has been fueled, in part, by school closings and resulting layoffs that disproportionately impacted black teachers – and hiring that has disproportionately favored white and, increasingly, Latino teachers, according to records and interviews.

“Black teachers are the first ones fired and the last ones hired,” Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis asserted at a recent rally.

Forrest Claypool, CPS’ CEO, wouldn’t comment. But his press office released a statement acknowledging the racial disparity in hiring and insisting the district is trying to make the teacher workforce more diverse through recruiting partnerships with historically black colleges, and school programs that encourage existing CPS students – about 85 percent of who are black or Latino – to consider teaching as a profession, among other measures.

“As districts around the country work to address this important issue, CPS is taking additional proactive steps to improve the diversity of our workforce,” CPS said in the statement.

It matters that such a minority-heavy student body has a fairly representative teaching population, experts said.

Studies show that students exposed to a diverse teaching staff perform better in elementary and high school, said Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University. Having teachers with similar racial and ethnic backgrounds builds confidence in students and gives them role models, Noguera said.

But the relatively low numbers of minority teachers hired in Chicago does not surprise Noguera or others who pay attention to city schools. “If it is not explicitly a priority, racial diversity just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Up until 2009, a federal court order was in effect requiring CPS to monitor the racial make-up of schools – students and teachers – and strive for a semblance of racial balance.

Kathleen Hagstrom, who has been principal of Disney Magnet School on the North Side for 14 years, said that prior to the decree being lifted, principals whose school staffs were not sufficiently racially integrated had to provide evidence that they tried to find teachers of color.

Once the order was gone, Hagstrom says CPS’ central office stopped pressuring principals to hire a diverse staff.

Ed Yohnka, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, said without the court order, CPS now can’t set preferences for the racial and ethnic background of teachers but can recruit from places that might offer up more diverse candidates or provide incentives for minority teachers to apply.

“The great thing about these [court] decrees is that they made integration part of the agenda,” Yohnka said. “The sad thing is that no one seems concerned about these issues anymore.”

Although CPS principals do much of the hiring for their schools, Hagstrom said principals should not bear all the blame for the racial disparity in staffs.

Over the past decade, the State of Illinois has made it harder to become a teacher, putting in place a basic skills test and making it harder to pass that test. Pass rates for black and Latinos lag behind those of whites, state records show. Some claim the tests are culturally biased.

Meanwhile, CPS centralized its hiring process and established a teacher quality pool that applicants must be in to get a teaching job. Hagstrom said there aren’t enough resumes – and fewer still black and Latino candidates applying for her school.

CPS is currently seeking proposals from companies to help recruit special education and bilingual teachers and other positions the district has a problem filling. As part of the proposal, the district is asking for companies to include a plan for bringing in teachers from “underrepresented backgrounds,” according to a CPS spokeswoman.

But even some minorities who are well qualified have sometimes found it difficult to get hired into CPS teaching jobs.

Michelle Evans, who is black, said she was floored at the obstacles she encountered when trying to get hired as a teacher at a Chicago public school. Evans got a master’s degree in education from Michigan State University and followed her roommate to Chicago, settling in the Lake View neighborhood.


Chicago Public Schools teacher Michelle Evans | Photo provided by BGA

She worked for two years as a teacher aide at Nettelhorst School, a highly rated elementary school a few blocks from her apartment. The first time she tried she failed to get into the teacher quality pool. She also interviewed four times at Nettelhorst and another school before being offered a job.

“At the end of the third one, I was like crying,” she says. “I started to feel like I was being told, ‘You are a really good aide and we like to have you around, but we aren’t going to offer you a job as a teacher.’”

Last year, Evans got into the teacher quality pool, and this year she finally got her own classroom. She said out of about 50 teachers at Nettelhorst, there are only two black, one Latino and two Asian teachers.

“Why haven’t they looked into the disparity of hiring practices?” she said of CPS. “If you have looked into our numbers, it is crazy. It is terrifying.”

In 2013, Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed 50 schools, which had predominantly black student populations and higher-than-average black teaching staffs.

CPS has no racial information on about 10 percent of its new teacher hires.

But among the 20 schools that have brought in the most new hires since the 2007-2008 school year, three didn’t hire any new black teachers, according to CPS records that did identify race. Meanwhile, eight apparently hired just one black teacher, the records show.

The number of schools with few if any black teachers nearly doubled from 26 in 2007-2008 to 48 in 2015-2016, the CPS spokeswoman confirmed. Those 48 schools are mostly in white or Latino neighborhoods.

Since 2007-2008, Lane Technical High School hired 125 new teachers – and it appears only one was black, according to CPS records. (The BGA analysis focused on new hires, so it’s possible Lane and other schools hired black teachers from inside the system. The analysis also did not focus on teacher aides.)

Jen Johnson, who works for the CTU and is biracial, said that as the ranks of black teachers thinned at her former workplace, Lincoln Park High School, she and other teachers of color took notice.

Among the 86 new teacher hires brought in by Lincoln Park administrators since 2007-2008, it appears none was black and six were Latino, data shows. Between 2007-2008 and 2013-2014, Lincoln Park’s black teaching staff was cut in half to 7 percent, while the percentage of Latino teachers went up from 6 percent to 8 percent.

System-wide, the number of Latino teachers is rising but still way below the white teaching population. In 2007-2008, there were 3,465 Latino teachers, representing about 15 percent of all CPS teachers. There are now 4,258 Latino teachers, or about 19.5 percent of the overall teaching staff.

Of the 10,000 teachers hired since 2007-2008, about 14 percent were Hispanic.

Roughly 46 percent of CPS’ nearly 400,000 students are Latino, while 39 percent are black and roughly 10 percent are white.

Clarice Berry, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said there are many reasons for the sluggish pace of black teacher hiring, though she doesn’t see a “conscientious” effort to deny African Americans job opportunities.

Many principals are focused on finding teachers who are bilingual, which most black teachers are not, Berry noted.

And young white teachers often live by schools on the North Side and want to work close to home. Conversely, “we live in a very segregated city and the jobs are just not where black teachers are,” Berry said.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp, who can be reached at skarp@bettergov.org.

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