Chicago school board talks teacher diversity, but skeptics remain

Only 10% of the district’s students are white but half of its teachers are white; CPS seeks public input on solutions.

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A speaker shares her thoughts about teacher diversity in Chicago Public Schools at a special board meeting on the topic.

Nader Issa/Sun-Times

Chikamso Odume knew from when she was a young girl that she wanted to be a teacher.

“It was the only thing I wanted,” she recalled Monday.

But when she finally reached her dream and taught in Chicago Public Schools for the past four years, it wasn’t like anything she envisioned — so much so that she’s already left the profession altogether.

“I was tired all the time,” Odume, 27, said. “I could not deal with the tiredness. Because I was a counselor. I was a teacher. I was a psychologist. I was everything to so many different kids. I taught about 350 kids in eight different classes each with 35 to 45 kids.

“There were so many reasons why I felt like that job for me was just not sustainable,” she said.

Though Odume’s story raises eyebrows, it’s not unique. And that’s part of the reason why Chicago’s school board called a meeting Monday to listen to the concerns and suggestions of Chicago Public Schools stakeholders who say there aren’t enough teachers of color in the district — and a lot of the ones who are here, like Odume, are so unhappy that they leave.

All involved, including CPS, know there’s a problem — only 10% of the district’s students are white but half of its teachers are white. And the solutions to fix it are wide-ranging, such as creating a pipeline of teachers from historically black schools, offering better support services or training existing school support staff who are predominantly black and brown.

But even as ideas were shared, skepticism about real change loomed large.

As board member Elizabeth Todd-Breland — who’s leading the group — acknowledged, there are always public meetings about education, but very little follow-through. She promised this time will be different.

“If you’re like me, we’ve all been to a meeting like this before where you sit and you say your good ideas and then, ‘What happened to all those good ideas? Nothing happened,’” she told those in attendance at Crane Medical Preparatory High School on the Near West Side. “This is not a situation where there is an existing program that we’re going to roll out or something. This feedback will be incorporated into what movement looks like in this area going forward.”

The meeting included a brief presentation by Todd-Breland and CPS’ head of human resources, Matt Lyons, before the packed room of about 120 people broke off into small groups to discuss concerns and suggestions.

Lyons explained the district’s perspective on some of the problems that have led to the shortage of teachers of color, including that while one in 10 CPS students expresses an interest in teaching, only one in 100 CPS grads ends up coming back to the district to teach.

Critics, though, said CPS has played a fairly active role in causing the shortage and making the job unattractive for prospective teachers.

In a news conference at Crane ahead of the meeting, Chicago Teachers Union officials pointed to still-ongoing lawsuits filed against the district earlier this decade that alleged discrimination when CPS when fired mostly black teachers in school turnaround efforts that got rid of and replaced entire school staffs.

“We’re down to only 20 percent of our educators in CPS being black. That’s unacceptable,” said CTU chief of staff Jennifer Johnson. “I was often the only black educator that many of my students saw in the high school where I taught.”

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