That national teacher shortage hasn’t hit Berkeley as hard as some districts.
Whether it’s the city’s progressive reputation, the presence of UC Berkeley, the public school district’s record of innovation, or the weather — Berkeley schools seem to draw teachers from all over.
A job fair earlier this year drew nearly 250 teaching candidates, inquiring about 25 to 50 openings anticipated over the summer.
Despite its best efforts, however, the Berkeley Unified School District is far from meeting its goal of recruiting a teaching staff whose racial composition is comparable to its students.
“I don’t know, frankly, if it will even happen in my life time,” said the district’s new personnel chief, David Gomez, in an interview last week.
In 1999, the district had teacher/student racial disparity in three key areas. That year, 518 teachers were 72 percent white, 14 percent African-American and 5 percent Hispanic, compared to a student body that was 31 percent white, 39 percent African-American and 13 percent Hispanic.
There simply aren’t enough people of color going into the teaching profession to even begin to meet the demand, Gomez said.
In neighboring Oakland, for example, only 6 percent of the district’s 54,000 students were white in 1999, compared to 48 percent of its teachers.
Berkeley must draw from an even smaller pool of minority candidates than some districts, Gomez said, because it traditionally hires only teachers with several years experience under their belt. “That’s the frustration,” Gomez said. “We get great candidates — hard workers with good attitudes — but they lack the training and experience.
“We know the need is there, and we’re starting to take steps to get to the goal,” Gomez added. “But it’s an upward battle. It’s difficult.”
In addition to its larger recruitment fairs, the district holds fairs specifically for minorities each year. It works with a local non-profit called “Project Pipeline,” which identifies college students of color who are good candidates for the teaching profession and helps them work toward their teaching credentials.
In any given year, the district employs a number of Project Pipeline students as interns, helping them broaden their teaching experience while they work towards credentials.
But programs like Project Pipeline are handicapped by the declining numbers of students of color entering and graduating from top universities, Gomez said.
“When affirmative action was taken away from the UC, you lost a really good group,” Gomez said. That group, Gomez said, could have been recruited into the teaching profession.
According to Gomez, it is a vicious cycle. Students of color attend public schools with few teachers of color to act as role models, which contributes to the academic achievement gap, which keeps students of color from attending top colleges, which prevents the pool of qualified minority teachers from growing.
Affirmative action, of course, was supposed to reverse cycles like this. But in absence of a political solution like affirmative action, it falls increasingly to school districts themselves. Districts now have to get involved in outreach and other efforts to prepare qualified minority teachers, Gomez said.
In the past, one of the ways the district has done this is by having its teachers and principals recruit talented young people of color to volunteer at the various school sites as, “instructional assistants.” This approach allows the district to groom its own minority teachers. By mentoring talented individuals one by one the district can encourage them to work towards their teaching credentials.
Gomez said he is applying for grants that would allow him to “formalize” and expand this program in the near future.
Gomez said he also plans to visit college classrooms next year himself, helping to get the word out that the Berkeley Unified School District wants more teachers of color and is prepared to help interested students pursue a career in teaching.