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In search of black teachers

DENVER — When Malcinia Conley attended Montbello High School in the early ‘80s, she was inspired by the black teachers she saw at the front of her classrooms.

“It was a feeling of, here is someone with an understanding of the cultural things that I am experiencing, so I believed they were someone who could help me to get through them,” said Conley.

“I’d look at them, and believe, ‘You can do anything you want.’ I could follow in their footsteps.”

Conley did just that. Today, she is one of 233 African-American teachers in Denver Public Schools. She’s back at her alma mater, where classes she teaches include Intro to Urban Education, a DPS program geared toward encouraging students to pursue teaching.

And Conley, like others, is dismayed by the decline in the number of black teachers in the city district.

Data snapshot – Denver

  • State figures show the number of black DPS teachers dropped from 299 in fall 1999 to 247 in fall 2009. During that decade, the total number of teachers grew from 4,075 to 4,579.
  • The number of black teachers fell by 52 over ten years while the overall number of teachers grew by 504.
  • District figures tell a different story because they do not include charter schools – district officials have no control over charter-school hiring.
  • DPS reports 201 black teachers out of a total of 3,996 in fall 2008 and 217 black teachers out of 4,291 in fall 2010. That’s 5 percent of the teaching force for both years.
  • The number of black students in DPS also fell from 1999 to 2009. Black students were 21 percent of Denver school enrollment in 1999 and 16 percent in 2009.

In the past decade, the Colorado Department of Education shows that the number of African-American educators in DPS traditional and charter schools reached a high of 352 in 2002 and a low of 233 this past fall.

That decrease has occurred even as the overall teaching force in Denver has grown.

Some DPS critics made this issue a central talking point in making the case for their recent failed recall effort against DPS School Board President Nate Easley.

But research by Education News Colorado shows the declining number of black teachers is an issue not just in DPS, where the black teacher population has dropped by 2 percent over the past decade, but across the state.

In fall 2009, the most recent figures available statewide, districts reported 707 African-American teachers – the lowest number since 1999. Black teachers made up 1.4 percent of Colorado’s 50,000-strong teaching force in 2009-10.

DPS is hardly alone in its struggles on this front. The percentage of black teachers in five of the state’s six largest school districts also has declined slightly or flatlined during the past decade. The lone exception is the Cherry Creek School District, which has seen a slight increase.

The national trend also appears to be downward.

The National Center for Education Statistics shows black teachers made up 8 percent of all public school educators in 1987-88. By 2007-08, the last year for which the NCES has data, it was 7 percent.

Meanwhile, frustration on the part of those passionately invested in the issue is mounting.

“We have 4,700 teachers in the district and a majority of them are white Americans. And we have over 50 percent of African-American kids failing,” said Annette Sills-Brown, who teaches at South High School and is chair of the Black Caucus for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We’re just doing an injustice in this country with African-American people in general. Our kids are failing and nobody seems to be concerned about that.”

‘They think we ride horses’

DPS recruiters on a recent tour that included stops at historically black colleges such as Spelman and Morehouse in Atlanta said the trip revealed Colorado has a steep hill to climb in luring young black educators to the state.

On recruiting teachers
“They think we ride horses. They think it’s cold, we don’t have a place to get haircuts and we don’t have any African-American churches.”
– Charles Robertson, MontbelloJeannine Carter, hired in July 2009 as the first DPS director of diversity initiatives, said some potential recruits “asked us, are you talking about Denver, Texas ? They just look at you like, Denver? Really?

“We had to entice them to come over to our booth to talk about Denver. Once they did talk to us, they didn’t know there were diverse communities here. And the weather was an issue.”

Also on the trip was Charles Robertson, who has been active in Montbello schools for seven years and who works for the Denver-based Foundation for Educational Excellence.

“You can’t recruit until you figure out what people think about you,” he said. “They think we ride horses. They think it’s cold, we don’t have a place to get haircuts and we don’t have any African-American churches. The district can’t overcome that on its own.”

The challenge for most Colorado public school districts is compounded by the fact that the pool of potential African-American hires closer to home is statistically insignificant.

Data snapshot – Colorado

  • State figures show the number of black Colorado teachers grew by 8 between 1999 and 2009. A total of 707 black teachers were employed in 181 school districts in 2009.
  • That 707 figure is the lowest number of black Colorado teachers since 1999.
  • During that decade, the total number of Colorado teachers grew by 8,461, from 42,063 to 50,524.
  • State officials list 925 as the official tally for 2009 but EdNews discovered Pueblo City had mistakenly inflated its black teacher numbers by 218.
  • The number of black students in Colorado increased by more than 9,000 in the past decade – to 49,413 – but the percentage of overall enrollment is still 6 percent.

A report presented to state lawmakers in January showed black students made up 2 percent of the 2009-10 enrollment in all Colorado educator preparation programs, both undergraduate and graduate. For the past six years, that works out to an average of 263 African-American teacher candidates per year.

“At any time, there are probably only 200 (black education majors) attending college in our state,” Robertson said. “Each year, only 10 to 15 are graduating. And just because they come out of an education program, the pay is lower, so they may end up taking a job in some other field, where the pay is maybe $2,000 or $3,000 more a year, so they can pay off their loans.”

The greatest success story among metro-area school districts is Cherry Creek, where the number of black educators has doubled since 1999.

Todd Fukai, a human resources director, said the district has cultivated one-on-one relationships with placement officers at colleges across the country, a strategy he finds more effective than job fairs where Cherry Creek is one of many districts on hand.

The district has focused on states such as Michigan, Florida and Texas, where tougher economies have made job candidates more open to relocating to Colorado.

And, once candidates are on board, he works with the district’s Office of Excellence and Equity to bolster the support network for minority educators.

Fukai said he compares notes with his counterparts in other districts on the efforts each is pursuing in improving hiring and retention practices.

“There’s no hoarding of secrets. Everyone is trying to help each other,” he said.  “The problem is, the pool is just so small.”

‘Really? But you’re so smart!’

JaMese Stepanek and Sabrina Stevens Shupe offer contrasting examples of young black educators’ experiences in Denver schools.

Stepanek, a teacher at McMeen Elementary, came from Omaha through the Denver Teacher Residency, a teacher training program based on a medical residency model.

“For me, I’ve always been interested in teaching but it took me a while to get into it, because I didn’t think I could live off the money,” said Stepanek, 26. “Now I know I can – but it is pretty tight.

In fact, she said some family members discouraged her from going into teaching.

“The push back from my family … was, ‘How are you going to support yourself on a teacher’s salary?’ That was the biggest question,” she said. “It was definitely financial.”

Nor does she have many friends of color who teach.

“I don’t have the time to worry about it,” she said. “I just know that I need to get done what I need to get done.”

Shupe, 25, said many people questioned her desire to go into public education, including those who knew her at the prestigious private college she attended outside of Philadelphia.

“The most common response was, ‘Really? But you’re so smart!’ ” she said. “Which is really disturbing. A lot of people think things like that.”

Even after she began teaching at Oakland Elementary, Shupe said,  “People were always telling me, ‘Try to do anything to get out of the classroom because it’s going to be a continuous hassle … you need to keep your head down, and move on and out.’ ”

After two years, Shupe submitted her resignation, feeling she needed to take time off to re-charge. A highly demanding school environment, she said, caused her to feel as if she had to make a choice between her own well-being and her students’ education.

On going into teaching
“The most common response was, ‘Really? But you’re so smart!’ Which is really disturbing. A lot of people think things like that.”
– Sabrina Stevens ShupeInstead of her resignation being accepted, however, Shupe’s contract was non-renewed, meaning she cannot reapply for a DPS teaching job. She appealed the termination but DPS board members declined to grant a review either of her non-renewal or about a dozen others who asked for another look at a May 2010 board meeting.

“For me, I don’t think it had anything to do with race,” said Shupe, who became active in the movement to recall Easley. “I think it was laziness, to be perfectly honest.”

Her experience in DPS represented a “cultural mismatch,” she said, both in terms of her personal temperament and her ethnicity.

Shupe does not believe racism on the part of DPS administrators is the reason behind the departure of educators such as herself, or for a failure to hire greater numbers of black teachers.

But, she said, “We deal with a lot of institutional racism on a daily basis that doesn’t have anything to do with specific peoples’ intentions.”

Stepanek relates a difference experience in DPS.

“The support system is awesome,” she said. “The color of a teacher’s skin is the last thing you’re worried about.

“I do feel like if I needed someone to talk to about curriculum or professional development, we could have that conversation,” she said. “And I do think the district is making a lot of moves toward talking about teacher diversity. I think the district is definitely making progress.

“But we need to open up the dialogue, and the way we talk about it.”

‘You’ll hear that color shouldn’t matter’

Forecasts for whether African-Americans will soon be a greater presence in public school classrooms are wide-ranging.

Kevin Chavous, chairman of the Black Alliance for Educational Options in Washington, D.C., said blacks now have far more numerous – and more lucrative – professional options than they once did.

“We have to keep in mind that the gateway to a professional career during segregation was the teaching profession; that was a gateway to a professional status, when other professions were more exclusionary,” he said. “That has changed over the last 30 years.”

Chavous believes the situation has hit a low point but he also senses a shift in recent years that may result in more young African-Americans moving into the profession.

“I think that there is, across the country, more renewed interest in education,” he said. “The Millennial generation is known as being more civic minded, having more of a volunteer spirit.

“I think that with President Obama being elected, we see this energy among young people of all colors, all ethnic groups, similar to Kennedy and the Peace Corps. There are more going into Teach for America,” he said. “They want to do volunteer work in distressed neighborhoods. That nationwide volunteer spirit is leading to more and more interest in going into education, for all Americans.”

Colorado education majors

  • Ethnicity of 13,076 students in educator prep programs, 2009-10
  • White – 9,978 students, 76%
  • Unknown – 1,295 students, 10%
  • Hispanic – 1,147 students, 9%
  • Asian – 260 students, 2%
  • Black – 259 students, 2%
  • Amer. Indian – 137 students, 1%
  • Source: Legislative report.

Stepanek, the McMeen teacher, said she was pulled into teaching through her love of it – she had previously done a lot of tutoring work – and she is skeptical about her young peers answering a national call to service.

“I do think people are paying more attention to race, and professions, because the president is black,” she said. “I do think it helps to bring up the awareness but I’m not sure trends are about to change because if it.”

At Colorado universities and colleges educating the teachers of tomorrow, varied efforts are underway to boost minority representation on public school faculties. But optimism is muted.

“It definitely is a discouraging phenomenon,” said Peter Vigil, a professor in teacher education at Metropolitan State College of Denver. “I think it speaks to a perpetual cycle of very few African-Americans not just not getting their college degree, but even their high school diploma.

“That’s the feeder to this system, which generates this cycle, where they don’t see educators at the secondary level who look like them,” he added. “They don’t have a positive experience in their own lives and that leads to them not having, not just the skills, license or degree, but having no desire to go back to the school environment, because it was such a negative experience for them.”

At Montbello, Conley has 32 students in her Intro to Urban Education class, the first year it’s been offered. She believes five or six of her students will go into education and another four might do so.

Ethnicity is hardly the only thing that matters for a teacher, she pointed out – “all in all, it was the teachers who cared” who led her back to the classroom as an adult.

“You’ll hear that color shouldn’t matter. That’s true,” she said. “But it’s also important to have someone who looks like you. That’s an inspiration.”

Trends in numbers of black teachers, students from 1999 to 2009

Jefferson County

  • Black teachers, 1999: 25, or .56% of total 4,441
  • Black teachers, 2009: 25, or .50% of total 4,993
  • Black students, 1999: 1,155, or 1.3% of 88,579
  • Black students, 2009: 1,695, or 1.9% of 86,250


  • Black teachers, 1999: 299, or 7.3% of total 4,075
  • Black teachers, 2009: 247, or 5.4% of total 4,579
  • Black students, 1999: 14,527, or 20.8% of 69,693
  • Black students, 2009: 12,413, or 16.1% of 77,255

Douglas County

  • Black teachers, 1999: 12, or .61% of total 1,944
  • Black teachers, 2009: 15, or .46% of total 3,211
  • Black students, 1999: 420, or 1.3% of 32,446
  • Black students, 2009: 1,787, or 3% of 59,932

Cherry Creek

  • Black teachers, 1999: 34, or 1.4% of total 2,472
  • Black teachers, 2009: 69, or 2.2% of total 3,094
  • Black students, 1999: 3,588, or 8.7% of 41,052
  • Black students, 2009: 7,592, or 14.7% of 51,708

Adams 12 Five Star

  • Black teachers, 1999: 14, or .90% of total 1,552
  • Black teachers, 2009: 8, or .37% of total 2,107
  • Black students, 1999: 636, or 2.2% of 28,947
  • Black students, 2009: 1,140, or 2.7% of 41,949


  • Black teachers, 1999: 80, or 5% of total 1,582
  • Black teachers, 2009: 86, or 4.2% of total 2,041
  • Black students, 1999: 7,060, or 23.8% of 29,639
  • Black students, 2009: 7,459, or 20.2% of 36,967


  • Black teachers, 1999: 696, or 1.65% of total 42,063
  • Black teachers, 2009: 707, or 1.39% of total 50,524
  • Black students, 1999: 40,156, or 5.7% of 708,109
  • Black students, 2009: 49,413, or 5.9% of 832,368

*Source: Colorado Department of Education