Changing Classrooms: When Students Are Black And Teachers Are White

Mia Pettigrew 1
Mia Pettigrew graduated this year from Thornton Fractional South High School in the south suburbs. The student population switched from majority white to majority black in recent years, but the teachers remain mostly white. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Mia Pettigrew 1
Mia Pettigrew graduated this year from Thornton Fractional South High School in the south suburbs. The student population switched from majority white to majority black in recent years, but the teachers remain mostly white. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Changing Classrooms: When Students Are Black And Teachers Are White

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During the four years Mia Pettigrew spent at Thornton Fractional South High School in south suburban Lansing, she had no teachers that looked like her.

“I’ve never had a class with an African American teacher,” Mia said.

Over the last two decades, the student population at Mia’s school has shifted from majority white to majority black. A school that was once 70% white is now about 60% black and about 20% Hispanic. But there’s been little change among the faculty. About 80% of the school district’s teachers are white, a small decline from 10 years ago. At the school, the teaching staff is about 78% white.

This mirrors a national trend. Public schools across the country are increasingly becoming less white, but districts are far behind on hiring teachers to reflect the demographic shift. In 2015, white students accounted for 49% of the national public school population, down from 61% in 2010. Meanwhile, the national teaching population remains about 80% white.

It could take years for schools like TF South to move to meaningful staff diversity. In the meantime, TF South and other schools are taking a second look at how they teach and relate to their students.

TF South Principal Jacob Gourley said it starts with having open and difficult conversations.

“Talking about equity issues and what barriers might exist in terms of implicit bias that sometimes white teachers don’t realize exist,” Gourley said.

Gourley, who is white, has been principal at TF South for the past few years, and started as a teacher there in the 1990s. He’s seen the demographic change over time, and it wasn’t always smooth.

The school is known as the Rebels and up until the mid-1990s, the mascot was a soldier adorned with the Confederate flag. The school no longer has an official mascot and it removed the Confederate imagery. But it came with heated debate, and some white families started to leave the area as more black families moved in.

Mia Pettigrew
Thornton Fractional South got rid of its mascot featuring a Confederate flag as the school’s student population shifted from white to black. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“We’re their kids”

Studies show teachers of color are beneficial for all students, especially black boys who are more likely to go to college if they’ve had a black teacher in elementary school.

Mia Pettigrew, the TF student who didn’t have a black teacher, said she took it upon herself to get to know the few black teachers at her school.

“The African American teachers at TF South really treat us like we’re their kids,” she said. “They feel like they have to look out for us. [They say] ‘because of your skin color, this might happen.’ In a school where there is mainly blacks, that’s really valuable advice.”

Gourley said the district is being intentional about hiring diverse teachers, but admits it’s a struggle.

“In my three years as principal, just over half of our new hires have been people of color, which is pretty significant compared to the applicant pool range which is overwhelmingly Caucasian,” he said.

The school board brought on a new superintendent last year, Dr. Teresa Lance, who is black. She’s been pushing new initiatives to better meet the needs of black and Hispanic students, including a curriculum audit.

“One of the findings of that was that we needed to do some cultural enrichment in terms of our curriculum, that it was kind of stale and Eurocentric,” Gourley said.

Gourley said that resulted in a curriculum rewrite in June, which includes whether a student is “getting” the content rather than simply being compliant, and prioritizing a focus on the student’s connection with the lesson and lived experiences.

Confronting an achievement gap

The district offered a training this year to help teachers get a fresh take on cultural differences.

Gourley said teachers talked about a scenario where a black student spoke out of turn in a classroom headed by a white, Catholic teacher. That teacher may have found that student to be disrespectful.

“Whereas, in a black church, that response is affirming the person who is speaking. Those kinds of things are eye-opening to people,” Gourley said.

Gourley said the lack of awareness may have led a teacher to wrongly reprimand a student. In turn, the student may have shut down in class.

Jacob Gourley
Thornton Fractional South High School Principal Jacob Gourley says he’s working to hire a more diverse teaching staff. In the meantime, the school is adjusting its curriculum and teaching to be more culturally sensitive to students. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

While the school is working to make changes, Gourley acknowledges the district struggles with an achievement gap. Last year, 40% of TF South white students met standards on math and English on the SAT. That compares to only 15% of black students who met standards for English, and 12% for math.

Some parents complain the district hasn’t done enough to address racial disparities. Sheryl Black was the first person of color to be elected to the district’s school board in 2011.

“Both of my sons went through the AP and honors track, but what we found was they were typically the only male students of color in those classes,” she said.

She said teachers seem to favor other students over black boys. National studies show that’s common. Black boys are least likely to be referred to advanced classes and more likely to receive discipline.

“I don’t see race”

While more schools across the country are taking up equity and diversity initiatives, consultants like Dr. Aaron Griffen say the work is in the early stages.

Griffen is director for diversity, equity and inclusion for a subset of schools in the Denver public school system. He led trainings at TF South and other districts, and said some people avoid talking about racial equity because they fear being labeled a racist.

“You will have individuals who will say ‘I don’t see color. I don’t see race. I only see children,’” Griffen said. “That for me is an excuse that you’re not willing to change what you’re doing to meet the needs of children.”

He said a common practice schools fall into is sending a black student to a black teacher for discipline when that should be addressed in the front office. That’s contributed to high turnover rates nationally for the already small number of teachers of color, he said, and researchers confirm.

“So if there’s a racial issue, all staff are supposed to address that. If there’s a genderism, classism, sexism issue, all staff are supposed to address that,” he said.

Griffen said the teachers he met at TF South were enthusiastic about what they learned, but he cautioned them to consider how they relate to students.

“They don’t need to be ‘down.’ They don’t need to be ‘lit.’ They don’t have to be ‘hype,’” he said. “Be who you are. Be authentic, versus you embarrassing yourself, by trying to culturally appropriate my culture and talk like me and walk like me and act like me. That’s not it.”

Principal Gourley said the trainings were voluntary, but eventually all staff will cycle through. He said they’re committed to continuing the work no matter how uncomfortable it gets.

“What I found, for the most part, [is that] people want social justice, at least in this profession,” he said. “We have to trust each other enough to have those difficult conversations and grow together.”

Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.

This story is part of Changing Classrooms, an occasional series at looking at how local schools are adjusting to growing student diversity in the Chicago suburbs.