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Why are Latino teachers such a minority in CPS?

There are thousands of vacancies every summer at Chicago Public Schools. Who gets hired is changing.

The percentage of black teachers saw a double-digit decline in the last decade, the percentage of white teachers has seen exponential growth, and the percentage of Hispanic teachers is crawling upward.

That slow increase of Hispanic teachers comes at a time when Hispanic students make up the largest ethnic group in CPS, at 46 percent.

“I am a proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools and I can honestly say that … I did not have any Latino teachers,” said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, education director at the nonprofit Latino Policy Forum, who attended CPS in the late 1990s.

Compare that to when current CPS teacher Henry Gomez was in school in the 2000s. He rattled off a list of his elementary school teachers—all but two were Latino. He attended a bilingual gifted program at Pulaski Elementary, so it’s possible his experience was the exception, not the rule. At Lane Tech, where he went to high school, he could only think of three teachers who were Latino.

The discrepancy isn’t lost on CPS interim CEO Jesse Ruiz, who is Latino.

“I think diversity is important,” Ruiz said. “It’s something I’ve championed all my career. I think if we don’t seek out diversity then we miss out in having some of the best talent possible.”

Problems with the numbers

District-wide numbers are publicly available from several sources. Data from the Illinois State Board of Education lists 4.8 percent of all teachers in the city as Hispanic in 2014.

The year before, the percentage of Hispanic teachers hit a record high 15.1 percent.

“There’s such a significant drop that you wonder if there was a typo,” Pacione-Zayas said.

Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Megan Griffin said the numbers were “based on the self-reported data that CPS supplied.” 

CPS’s website, however, lists 18.6 percent of the teacher workforce as Hispanic.

District spokesman Bill McCaffrey couldn’t explain the discrepancy. He said the raw numbers from the human resources officials show an increase over the last four years. McCaffrey said there were 4,039 Latino teachers this year, up from 3,868 three years earlier. CPS employed just over 22,500 teachers last year.

CPS denied a FOIA request filed by WBEZ in May that asked for a school-by-school breakdown of teacher demographics, saying it was unduly burdensome. A revised request is still pending.

Local efforts to diversify teachers

No matter the data source, one thing is true: Latino teachers are the minority among CPS teachers and their growth is not keeping pace with the rapidly growing Latino student population.

There are programs trying to change that.

Henry Gomez entered the Golden Apple Scholars program in 2009, just after graduating high school, and is now teaching at Schurz High School. The Golden Apple Scholars program provides tuition assistance for students who attend one of more than 50 Illinois teacher preparation programs. They work with students over the summer and provide mentoring through the first and second years of teaching. In exchange, students who complete the program commit to working in a high need school for at least five years.

Grow Your Own is a community-based program that recruits people of color to become teachers in low-income communities. It focuses on both young people and career changers and partners with traditional, university teacher certification programs.  

CPS itself offers career programs in teaching and early childhood education at six district high schools—Curie, Simeon, Roosevelt, Phillips, Uplift and Wells.

And, interestingly, the Noble Network of Charter Schools just launched its own two-year teacher residency program in partnership with a new graduate school, called Relay. Charter schools typically have whiter, younger teachers, but the new program exclusively recruits from Noble’s largely Latino and black alumni base.

CPS CEO Ruiz thinks these programs and partnerships are promising.

“We probably need more and districts themselves have to go out and promote these programs,” he said.

Maureen Gillette is the dean of the College of Education at Northeastern Illinois University, which partners with Grow Your Own and Golden Apple. She said there are all kinds of academic benefits for students who are taught by people of similar backgrounds. But also, for all students—white, black, Latino, or Asian.

By way of example, she says before she worked at Northeastern, she worked at a small liberal arts school on the East Coast and recalls a big uproar over diversity.

“One of the issues was that there were almost no African-American professors, but there were a lot of African-American custodial staff and a lot of African-American cooks in the kitchen,” Gillette said. “If that’s the only place students see people of color, what message does that send?”

Overcoming barriers to becoming a teacher

Gillette is concerned about recent changes to state policy that are making it harder to increase diversity in the teaching staff.

“In 2012, the state board of education raised the cut score on the Test of Academic Proficiency, which is the test that you have to pass to be certified,” Gillette said. That pinched out a lot of promising candidates of color.  

Ruiz served on the Illinois State Board of Education just before that cut score was changed. He said he still doesn’t think the drop in the number of candidates of color passing the licensing exam should be cause for concern.

“I don’t think you have to sacrifice quality to find diversity,” Ruiz said.

But Gillette worries the state is focused on the wrong thing—entry—when it should be more focused on support and development.

“There is not a member of my faculty who doesn’t want good teachers,” she said. “But the question is, does any of this make a difference in getting to excellent teachers? And I really don’t think there’s not a solid research base that the (new entry test) will help us get better teachers.”

Pacione-Zayas from the Latino Policy Forum said the new requirements create a bit of a Catch-22.

“Because you don’t want to say, ‘Let’s lower standards so that we can have black and Latino teachers, you know, knocking down our doors,’ because in some ways, it’s insulting,” Pacione-Zayas said. “We have those candidates. We have individuals who have those qualities. But we also have to acknowledge that there are barriers. And what do we do to support those individuals who are committed, who are passionate, who are disciplined to be able to overcome those barriers and obstacles?”

She says school districts have to think about how to get diverse students interested in being teachers at an early age. Then districts must prepare those students well academically, so those barriers won’t shut them out.

Becky Vevea is an education reporter for WBEZ. You can reach her at bvevea@wbez.org and follow her @WBEZeducation.

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