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Tough time recruiting minority teachers

By Ben Lumpkin
Thursday June 28, 2001

Recruiting minority teachers isn’t easy for any Bay Area school district in these days of astronomical housing costs and a national teacher shortage. 

But the Berkeley Unified School District may have more obstacles to overcome than most. 

Berkeley administrators say recruiting more minority teachers is a high priority. When Berkeley High Vice Principal Michele Patterson traveled to job fairs this year, she went out of her way to meet with minority candidates and try to lure them to the school. (In the 1999-2000 school year Berkeley High’s 184 teachers were 73 percent white and 15 percent African American, compared to a student body that was 37 percent white and 37 percent African American.) 

It wasn’t a hard sell, Patterson said. The Berkeley school district has a very good reputation and many minority teachers-to-be are eager to work here. In fact, Patterson met with a number of minority students finishing up teaching credential programs who had done “student teaching” in Berkeley schools and were ready and waiting to continue their careers here. 

There was just one problem: Berkeley schools are too good. 

Under state and federal programs, graduates from teacher credentialing programs can have most or all of their tuition loans paid off by the government if they volunteer to go to work in “low-performing” schools. But Berkeley has no “low-performing” schools. Hundreds and hundreds of low performing students maybe, but they attend schools with enough high-performing students to boost the Academic Performance Index rating well above the “low-performing” range.  

“That’s been my biggest obstacle: trying to find candidates who don’t need their teacher credential loans paid off,” Patterson said. “You’d have this great interview with them and be all excited about bringing them to Berkeley and then all of a sudden they’d say, ‘Oh, by the way, I need to be in a low-performing school. Which of yours is low performing?’” 

Other obstacles to the recruitment of minority teachers abound. 

To begin with, the district has almost no budget for teacher recruiting. David Gomez, Berkeley’s associate superintendent of administrative services, managed to get $1,500 for recruiting purposes this year, which mostly went to place ads in magazines, including many with high African-American and Latino readership. 

Other than that, the district is left to rely on word of mouth (i.e. Berkeley reputation as an exciting district to work in) and visits to local, free job fairs (like the ones Patterson attended). 

One district program allows minorities (and others) who are interested in a teaching career, but are not yet credentialed to work as paid teachers while they pursue their credentials.  

This program offers more of an incentive than it might seem at first blush. When Patterson did her student teaching 15 years ago, there wasn’t an opportunity to be paid for it, she said. 

As Gomez put it: “If they were just students they wouldn’t be paid anything. And here they’re being paid as teachers and they’re getting benefits and getting experience.” 

However, there is a major drawback to this program, Gomez said: The sheer amount of work involved in being a full time teacher and simultaneously completing classes in a teacher credentialing program. 

“Some of them burn out really fast,” Gomez said. “We’re doing all the common sense type things to help them. But the bottom line is: they’re working full-time and going to school. That’s the killer.” 

The credentialing issue can also be frustrating for Berkeley High teachers, many of whom put in unsolicited efforts to recruit minority teachers to the school. 

English teacher Tammy Harkins told how she, English Department Chair Allison Johnson and others managed to recruit three African-American men to teach in the English department next year. It’s been more than 10 years since the department has hired an African American man, Harkins estimated. 

But one of the candidates - a man who has taught at a private school and worked extensively with “at risk” youth – is being held up because he lacks the proper teaching credential, Harkins said. 

“He just has an amazing resume, but he hasn’t jumped through that hoop of getting credentialed,” she said. 

Harkins said she has watched other teachers who were doing very well at Berkeley High, and succeeded in engaging minority students where others had failed, end up leaving the school because of difficulties in obtaining the proper credentials. 

Katrina Scott-George, a teacher in Berkeley High’s Rebound program, formed in January to create longer and smaller classes in core subjects for students (almost all of them students of color) who failed two or more classes the first semester, said at least one African American man who wanted to teach for Rebound withdrew his application after be hassled about his lack of credentials. The man was studying for his doctorate at the time, Scott-George said. 

Scott-George ended up being the only person of color out of Rebound’s five teachers. She said it didn’t detract from the success of the program, but that there still needed to be more minority teachers at Berkeley High.  

“If (teachers) don’t really have any shared experience (with students), I think it makes it harder (to teach them), not impossible,” Scott-George said.  

“If students don’t see any teachers of color around then it contributes to the whole message of the school not really being for or about students of color,” she added. 

Berkeley school board director John Selawsky said Wednesday that he and other directors have investigated some of the obstacles to recruiting more minority teachers in recent months and are exploring remedies to the problems. 

One solution would involve giving teachers who plan to retire the end of the year some kind of incentive to notify the school district as early in the year as possible. Berkeley is too often in the position of recruiting new teachers in May and June, while other districts are able to do their recruiting in March, Selawsky said. In other words, other districts are able to snatch up the limited pool of minority teachers before Berkeley even starts its recruiting. 

Another solution the district is exploring, along with the city, is creating subsidized housing for teachers and other public employees, to help ease the burden posed by Berkeley’s high cost of living. 

Selawsky said these discussions are in the preliminary stages and are not yet a high priority on the board’s agenda.  

“This hasn’t been a discussion that we’ve all had yet, but we will,” Selawsky said. “Some how we have to figure out ways to make people want to stay in Berkeley.”