by Deborah Harris

Alexa Parvey was in her sophomore honors English class at Chapel Hill High School — but the conversation wasn’t about from literature.

The class began discussing the lack of minority students in honors classes relative to standard classes. A student weighed in: “Minorities aren’t in honors classes because they don’t care about school.”

Parvey was bothered more by the lack of response from her teacher to the student’s comment than the actual remark.

“My teacher didn’t say anything to rebuff that — and just let it hang there,” Parvey said. “I had to be the one to say, ‘that’s not the case.’”

It was another example of a time when Parvey, a Caribbean-American student, felt disconnected from her teacher.

In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS), 22 percent of teachers are nonwhite, while 48 percent of students are nonwhite. The gap in percentages at the community level is similar to that at the national level. In the 2011-12 school year, about 50 percent of all elementary and secondary students were the minority, while 18 percent of all elementary and secondary teachers were the minority, according to Slate magazine.

Parvey said the lack of minority teachers has posed challenges for the school system to create a culture of diversity and inclusion.

“Sometimes people of different races haven’t gone through the same things their students have because of skin color,” Parvey said.

“When you walk into the classroom, the teacher is coming from their background – that can make it harder for them to connect. The students can want to distance themselves because they feel like the teachers are not the same.”

Creating a conversation

Parvey is a high school senior now. She is one of about 20 students taking part in the Students’ Six Strategies in CHCCS. In its fourth year, Students’ Six Strategies trains teachers to change what they see as an often unwelcoming environment for minority students in the classroom.

Minority students like Parvey share their experiences and perspectives with school teachers, describing ways to confront uncomfortable conversations about race in the classroom, dismantle teachers’ prejudices and become aware of all students’ cultures.

Despite the fact that race has at times played a role in creating a divide between Parvey and her teachers, she said the root of the problem is lack of cultural awareness.

“I feel like teachers don’t have to be the same race to connect with their students, but to get students to be able to learn, it’s about being open-minded and finding other ways to connect with your students,” Parvey said.

And that’s what Students’ Six Strategies aims to do.

N.C. Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Durham, was formerly the CHCCS student equity director and helped found Students’ Six Strategies. For several years, Meyer trained teachers to better work with minority students.

“But I’m a white guy,” Meyer said. “So getting the students who are actual recipients of the teaching to say, ‘this is who we are and this is why this works for us’ — it’s a much more direct conversation between teachers and students.”

Meyer said the achievement gap exists in part because the education system doesn’t do a good job of preparing teachers to relate to their student’s culture. So cultural miscommunications occur on a daily basis.

Slate magazine cites the example of Corinne Bridgewater, a teacher at a New Orleans charter school during the 2013-14 school year, whose female student arrived at school wearing a bandana, which was a dress code violation. When the student said she couldn’t remove the bandana, Bridgewater knew why: The teen had started removing her synthetic braids the night before and needed to cover her head for the process.

“No matter what your cultural background is, if you have been educated in the U.S. educational system, the system itself is culturally normed around the dominant culture — the white culture,” Meyer said. “In some ways, you are going to be better at serving the kids who fit in the easiest.”

 A hard gap to fill

Sheldon Lanier, director of Equity Leadership for CHCCS, said CHCCS does an excellent job of recruitment — but the school district has to have candidates to work with.

“We are at the mercy of the universities,” Lanier said. “So if they are not giving us what it is we need, not only for Chapel Hill-Carrboro Schools, but any school district, if they are not producing the candidates, there is nothing we can really do.”

“We cannot all the sudden just create somebody out of thin air.”

CHCCS has begun partnering with a new North Carolina Central University program to turn teaching assistants from the district — often who are more likely minority — into certified teachers. In addition, the district has changed hiring practices to take out biases, but only so much can be done in a state that ranks near last in terms of pay.

A 2014 study by social media company WalletHub ranked North Carolina as the worst state for teachers, 48th for lowest public school spending per student and 47th for lowest annual salaries adjusted for cost of living.

CHCCS has a hard time retaining teachers of color, said Dana Thompson Dorsey, UNC-Chapel Hill assistant professor of educational leadership and policy.

“There was a newspaper article a year ago about parents in Chapel Hill and, in turn, central office personnel, questioning the credentials of teachers and administrators of color applying for jobs — questioning whether they were smart enough, graduating from schools good enough to teach their kids,” she said.

In 2013, The Herald-Sun reported that several parents had criticized teachers from historically black colleges or universities. The district responded by creating support groups for teachers and administrators of color.

Richard Ingersoll, an education professor and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, said in the 2008-09 school year, minority teacher turnover was 24 percent higher than white teacher turnover. According to Ingersoll, minority teacher turnover has only worsened. The number of minority teachers who moved, retired or resigned from their schools jumped 28 percent between 1988 and 2009, while the number increased 8 percent for white teachers.

Still, Dorsey maintains that change is possible.

“I think there is more that can be done to make it more attractive, so that all people – a lot of people – from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, who want to go into teaching, (can),” she said.

“And definitely for people of color.”

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