Needed: Black male teachers
Look inside America's classrooms, and you're not likely to see a black man behind the teacher's desk.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
YOUNGSTOWN -- In Kenya Harrington's 13 years in the Alliance schools, he had one black man as a teacher, and he made a lasting impression.
"I looked up to him," Harrington recalled about the substitute teacher he knew as "Mr. Tony" in the sixth and seventh grades.
"I thought, 'He's a successful teacher. If he could do it, maybe I could, too.'"
A dozen years later, Harrington, 25, has the opportunity to make the same impression on the next generation of young, black male pupils, and he takes the job seriously.
"There are so many negative things going on outside of school," said Harrington, a second-year reading and English teacher at East Middle School in Youngstown.
"If they don't see someone doing something positive, they don't feel that they can do something positive themselves."
Critical deficit: Harrington is one of what education experts say is a critically low number of black men teaching in U.S. schools today.
When classes open in schools nationwide this academic year, black males will make up an estimated 2 percent of the nation's 2.5 million elementary and secondary classroom teachers.
In Ohio, it's 1.3 percent. In Youngstown and Warren public schools, the Mahoning and Shenango valleys' two largest school districts, it's even less.
And, it doesn't look like it's going to get much better anytime soon.
Less than 3 percent of college students enrolled in teacher-training programs in the nation's education schools are black men, according to the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education.
At Youngstown State University, a major source of teachers for Mahoning Valley schools, less than 2 percent of teacher candidates are black men.
"There's really an imbalance," said Beatriz Clewell, research associate with the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization in Washington.
"There aren't enough minorities in the pipeline to fill the gap and redress the imbalance."
Kids need role models: The issue is important, Clewell and others say, because recent research shows that having a teacher of the same race and gender may have a positive impact on a child's achievement.
It's also important, they say, because many black children, especially those in urban centers, need positive black male role models.
And schools, where children are a captive audience nine months a year, are one of the best places for those role models to be.
"African-American children see many African-American males as great athletes and entertainers," said Germaine Bennett, human resources director for the Youngstown schools.
"But it's important, since education is so important, to have black men in the classroom as role models as well, to show the children that they have other choices in life. To have someone who they can not only see, but someone they can interact with."
"Certainly, any child -- no matter what color they are or what ethnic or religious background they are -- should not go through any long period of education without ever seeing someone who looks like them," said Betty English, Warren schools superintendent.
"And I think there are times when students go through 12 years of school and never see a teacher who looks like them."
That was the case for Matt Richardson, a Warren native. In his school career, which concluded when he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Warren in 1994, he had no black male teachers.
Richardson graduated from YSU in June 2000 and now teaches physical education at Alden and Jefferson elementary schools in Warren.
He is one of nine black male teachers in the school district, 1.5 percent of the district's 596 teachers. About 45 percent of Warren's pupils are minorities.
"I think it's real important to not just have African-American males in the classroom, but males, period," said Richardson, 25. "There just aren't that many, especially in elementary schools."
Behind the shortage: Reasons are many for the low number of black men entering teaching careers:
Black males have many more career opportunities today, including law, business and medicine, Clewell said. "Before, teaching was one of the few options," she said.
Increased certification requirements, low pay and a growing lack of respect for the teaching profession also have turned many prospective teachers away from the profession, Clewell said.
"When I talk to black male students in my office, a lot of them want to pull themselves into a better economic future, and they see teaching as a hard way to do that," said Joe Edwards, interim dean of YSU's college of education.
Teachers can expect to earn salaries in the low $20,000 range out of college, Edwards said.
"If they go through a four-year program in some other field, the rewards are higher," he said. "So I think from the standpoint of a male student, that creates a certain number of questions and some pause."
Many of the black men who choose to enter the classroom leave within a few years to become principals, a trend that worries Bennett.
"For each one that moves in another direction, you would hope that you had two to take their place, but you don't," she said.
Finding black male teachers, or minority teachers in general, is difficult, school officials say.
Edwards said he regularly receives inquiries from school districts between Cleveland and Pittsburgh looking for minority teaching candidates.
"They get snatched up pretty quickly," he said.
Hopes to inspire: Harrington, who received his teaching degree from the University of Toledo in 1999, is one of 11 black male teachers in the Youngstown schools, 1.3 percent of the district's 816-member teaching force.
Harrington said he hopes to provide the same inspiration for his pupils that Mr. Tony provided him more than a decade ago.
"I hope they can look at me and say, 'Mr. Harrington is doing something good and positive and he's successful. I want to be like him.'
"I want the students to know that I'm not just going to work every day. I want to try to let them know that I care and want to see something positive come into their lives."