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In a shift, Teach for America is hiring more non-whites

Vanessa Romo | August 18, 2014

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Teach for America LAUSDThe growing diversity gap between teachers and students of color has been problematic for years, and school districts have struggled to find ways to attract a workforce that more closely resembles changing student demographics.

Now, one organization is tackling the issue head on: Half of this year’s Teach for America (TFA) recruits are people of color.

In Los Angeles, the ranks of TFA’s minority teachers are even greater. According to the organizations’s latest numbers, 70 percent of incoming teachers in the metro LA area, which includes LA Unified and other surrounding districts, identify as non-white; nearly half received federal Pell Grants, which are given to low income students; half are the first in their families to graduate from college, and 10 of the new teachers are recent immigrants who earned federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status, which means they are eligible for employment.

“I’ve seen the difference it can make when a student is able to see him or herself reflected in that teacher in the front of the classroom,” said Robert Whitman, principal at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles Unified.

Whitman has hired a number of Teach For America corps members in the last three years, including 13 who are starting in the school year that began last week.

Last year, people of color accounted for 56 percent of incoming teachers and 60 percent came from low-income communities.

The shift to non-whites in teachers is a result of the group’s change in recruiting strategy. The organization has been heavily criticized in the past for dispatching fleets of young, white, mostly affluent college graduates to poor schools made up predominantly by students of color.

This time, applicants were also screened for “a deep belief in the potential of all kids, often informed by experience in low-income communities” and “perseverance in challenging situations.”

Several studies have found that teachers of color can serve as role models for students of color, and when students see teachers who share their racial or ethnic backgrounds, they often view schools as more welcoming places. Students of color also do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they are taught by teachers of color.

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education, based on 2011-2012,   pegs California’s teacher “diversity gap” at 43 points: While 72 percent of students were of color, only 29 percent of teachers came from a minority group. In LA Unified, 74 percent of students were Hispanic, while just around 34 percent of teachers were Hispanic.

By the latest LA Unified statistics, for 2013-2014, nearly 60 percent of district teachers were non-white.

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