Elton Haydel recalls that as a Frederick County Public Schools student he never had a teacher who looked like him.
Haydel, who is black, said the lack of a figure with whom he could identify left a void as to what he thought he might be able to do with his life — even though his parents had successful careers in teaching and veterinarian services.
“When I was young, I had one type of teacher,” Haydel said. “And I couldn’t connect with them. They couldn’t understand what I had been through. They came from a different world.”
Now, as a teacher at Ballenger Creek Middle School — a school that is nearly half minority students — Haydel is filling the role he never had someone to fill.
“I thought I could be a value to kids who look like me,” Haydel said. “I want to give them something I never had.”
But, as has been the case nationwide for decades, there aren’t enough Elton Haydels in the county to go around.
A lack of diversity
Frederick County Public Schools faces a lack of minority teachers. In 2014-2015, the most recent school year for which the state has demographic data, 64.5 percent of Frederick County students were white, and 35.5 percent were non-white. That same year, 171 teachers in the county were non-white — making up just 6.3 percent of the population, which is well behind the state average of nearly 25 percent non-white teachers.
The discrepancy is even more jarring when looking at black teachers — black men in particular. In 2014-2015, just nine of the district’s teachers were black men. The 62 black teachers in FCPS that year made up 2.3 percent of the teaching population. Nineteen of the 24 school districts in Maryland had more black teachers than Frederick County, which had the 12th most non-white students in the state.
Earl Robbins, of Kappa Alpha Psi, said his fraternity has worked with FCPS for nearly 20 years in an effort to get more black teachers into the school system. The district hired 31 minority teachers, including 12 black teachers this year, he said, which is an improvement, but not close to where he wants it.
“It’s been a pet peeve of mine for years,” Robbins said. “I don’t think the county does a good job of hiring those minority teachers. I know salary is a big issue. It’s tough out there, but I’m not always satisfied the county sends the right message to students looking for a profession to get in.”
Board member Ken Kerr, who recently gave a presentation on a teacher apprenticeship program he would hope to use to develop more minority teachers, said the district would need to hire 82 minority teachers to have the teaching body match the demographics of the county’s students, which the board of education has set as a strategic goal.
But, there are challenges to meeting those numbers, in particular for Frederick County, which has historically paid its teachers less than neighboring counties.
“Our numbers are low,” said Eric Phillips, the school district’s supervisor of accelerating achievement and equity. “We want a diverse workforce, sure, but when you’re a new teacher that’s in demand, and you have options, there’s going to have to be something that drives me to a school system where I get paid less when another school system will pay me more.”
Despite the fairly low numbers, Frederick County had the most diverse teaching force of any county in Western Maryland — made up of Garrett, Allegany, Washington and Frederick counties — according to the 2014-2015 numbers.
A national teacher shortage makes teacher recruitment more difficult for the district, including an even greater shortage of minority teachers, according to a 2016 study by the Learning Policy Institute.
With such a small labor pool to choose from, the recruitment of those minority teachers is of increasing importance — and difficulty.
“We’re trying to get those teachers, but so is everyone else,” Phillips said. “So one of the things we’re looking at is, are we doing enough to draw a diverse workforce?”
Filling the gap
Even though a 2017 study by Johns Hopkins University showed that black students who have even one black teacher are 39 percent more likely to graduate from high school than black students who do not, the district isn’t setting out to hire minorities just to have representation. They’re still looking for the best teachers, Phillips said.
“It’s a good goal to have,” Phillips said. “We do want our staff to reflect our student population, but we also have to be aware of our constraints that are not of our making.”
So, Phillips is leading an initiative toward cultural proficiency — a broad phrase that is being interwoven into everything the school system does, Phillips said.
Cultural proficiency, Phillips said, is a tool that leads to equity in the school system. The intent behind it is to have administrators, teachers, students and community members take a deep look at how they interact with others in an effort to better understand the factors that make them who they are. Cultural proficiency takes into account factors such as race, ethnicity, political affiliation, religious beliefs, work experience — everything that makes a person who they are.
In part, it requires people to confront their implicit biases in order to better understand their co-workers and for students to be able to build a relationship with those groups.
Toni Madrid, a third-grade teacher at Hillcrest Elementary, came to FCPS this year after moving from Texas. Madrid, who is Hispanic, has a similar story to Haydel. Growing up, none of her teachers ever looked like her.
“My sister actually came home from school one day and told my mom, ‘Mom I’m the only brown person at my school,’ and that actually really upset my mom,” Madrid said. “I remember not having that person to connect to, and I just wanted to be that person students could connect to.”
In Texas, nearly everyone looked like Madrid. Many of her students were of Mexican descent, as were her co-workers. By moving to Maryland, she was greeted by students of all different backgrounds.
“Even when you see a Hispanic student, you can’t assume the student is Mexican,” Madrid said. “You have to build that relationship through talking with them and understanding their background and their cultures to find out what makes them who they are.”
Madrid admits that there’s value to having a teacher who looks like his or her students, but skin color and ethnicity don’t preclude a teacher from learning about a student’s culture to better understand them.
Along with striving to build cultural proficiency among staff members, the district has also ramped up its recruiting of minority teachers by visiting historically black colleges and universities, and putting forth the effort in building those relationships.
Each year, Robbins’ fraternity holds a welcoming ceremony for the district’s minority teachers. Just as a teacher who looks like a student can inspire that student, teachers can find support in being around those who look like them, Robbins said.
“People have been leaving because there’s more money to be made elsewhere,” Robbins said. “We started this reception as a small way to let them know they are supported.”
The fraternity goes on recruiting trips as well to try and lure minority teachers to FCPS, Robbins said.
FCPS has also implemented a future teacher program at the Career and Technology Center that is made up of local students who have said they want to enter the teaching profession. The academy currently has 23 students enrolled.
Ideally, Kerr’s apprenticeship program would cherry-pick kids from the teaching academy and put them into the four-year program, developing homegrown teachers who would be committed to FCPS.
But the district still needs to be able to give potential teachers a reason to pursue Frederick County as a place to work.
When Phillips, who is black and attended school in Montgomery County, readied to graduate from college, he attended a job fair, and Montgomery County Public Schools hired him on the spot — something many school systems do to increase minority hires, Phillips said.
Frederick County, however, is trying to balance how aggressive it is in diversifying its teaching body, with being equitable.
“One of the things that’s most important is the relationship that the teacher is able to form with that group of students,” Phillips said.
There are also inherent biases in minority teachers that sometimes keep them from teaching in a system that is largely white, Phillips said. Phillips recalled a student at a job fair who said she felt she couldn’t see herself teaching in an affluent school district.
“She said she didn’t think she could teach in a city other than the one she grew up in,” Phillips said. “She said she felt like the students in the white, affluent areas would be smarter and know more than her.
“I valued the fact that she was vulnerable enough to say that in front of her peers. So that’s another part we need to consider. We want to recruit a diverse workforce, but does a diverse workforce want to come here?”
Phillips said he made the transition to Frederick County nearly 20 years ago, because the school system made him feel valued, which is also a reason Haydel said he wanted to come to the school system. His mother worked for FCPS, and the recruiters in the school system pushed hard to get him to make the jump this year from a school district in New Orleans.
“They were really pitching it to me hard,” Haydel said. “And they were there every time I had a question. It really made me feel like I was wanted.”
Although Haydel liked New Orleans, the school systems there lack the resources he felt like he needed to make a difference — and funding only continued to decrease, he said.
His students didn’t have access to Chromebooks and lesson plans were often scripted, Haydel recalled. The stresses of life in New Orleans had some students afraid to even get on and off the school bus.
Soon, he felt that a move was necessary. FCPS helped him with the paperwork to gain reciprocity and make his Louisiana teaching certificate a Maryland teaching certificate.
More importantly, when he has asked for help or guidance, the support has been there, he said.
“Everyone I’ve met has shown that they truly care for me,” Haydel said. “They really want to draw you here because it’s a great place to teach, and they’ve shown me that since day one.”