Jeff Copeland is one of two black teachers at Sequoia Middle School in Fresno. For a while, he was the only one.
“I never had any teachers that looked like me growing up,” says Copeland, 28. “So I wanted to become a teacher.”
Fresno Unified, California’s fourth-largest school district, takes pride in the diversity of its student body. Less than 10 percent of the district’s 73,000 students are white, and students speak more than 100 languages. But like many districts across the country, diversity among teachers is lacking.
Nearly 60 percent of Fresno Unified teachers are white; 26 percent are Latino; 10 percent Asian and 4 percent black. Of diverse Fresno County’s 10,000 teachers, more than 6,400 of them are white. About 2,500 are Latino; 600 are Asian and 250 are black.
Clovis Unified, where Copeland graduated from high school, faced calls for teacher diversity in October, after students’ racist social media messages were exposed. There, more than 80 percent of teachers are white.
“You want to get people that are really passionate about kids, no matter what they look like. But it’d be great if they were people of color,” says Copeland, a Fresno State graduate. “The kids of color respond to you differently. It’s a comfort level and a trust they feel they can relate to.”
Nationally, students of color make up more than half of the public school population, but more than 80 percent of teachers are white, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education in 2016.
“Improving teacher diversity can help all students. Teachers of color are positive role models for all students in breaking down negative stereotypes and preparing students to live and work in a multiracial society,” the report says. “A more diverse teacher workforce can also supplement training in the culturally sensitive teaching practices most effective with today’s student populations. In addition to providing social advantages for all students, the racial diversity of the teaching workforce can help to close the achievement gap, emerging research suggests.”
Copeland, who teaches U.S. history, calls his race “a huge advantage” in the classroom. “When you’re the black kid in class and the topic of slavery comes up, everyone looks at you. I get that,” he says. “I can talk about race without the kids getting uncomfortable. I say, ‘Hey, this is a tough topic but we’re going to talk about it and be mature about it because somebody has to.’”
Nicole Rivera, assistant principal at Aspen Public Schools, a charter school in Fresno, is Hispanic and says she became a teacher to change what she calls “a poverty mindset” she saw from some of her teachers growing up in Fresno.
“Some teachers would let things slide because a student was a certain race or was poor or from this or that neighborhood. Like, ‘Oh, well, that’s the best they can do,’” she says.
Rivera, 28, graduated high school from Aspen Valley Prep Academy, and was working as a teacher’s aide there before she even got to college. She says when teachers found out she wanted to become a teacher herself, they helped her achieve her goals.
“If you go into any classroom right now and ask students who wants to be a teacher, a lot of them will raise their hands,” Rivera says. “I think ultimately our end goal would be to have more diverse teachers and more pathways for students of color to get there.”
That’s what Fresno Unified has been doing for eight years.
The district’s “grow your own” approach identifies students of color who might become teachers and gives them financial and other support to get through college. More than 95 percent of the participants in the district’s teacher academy, lessons tailored to high school students who are aspiring teachers, are students of color.
“We start at the student level. That’s the best strategy we have for diversity,” says Teresa Morales-Young, who oversees teacher development at Fresno Unified. “Our vision is that our students have teachers that look like them standing in front of them who are high quality. That gives them a vision of what they could be.”
This year, Clovis Unified hired a “coordinator of community relations” who focuses on diversity, and the district is specifically focusing teacher recruitment efforts on diverse teachers, according to district spokeswoman Kelly Avants.
That means “increasing our community outreach efforts, such as recruiting at the Hmong New Year events; creating a team of diverse teachers and administrators who will represent us at recruitment events because we have been told by candidates that they like to talk with people of similar diversity about their work experiences and outreach to historically diverse colleges and universities around the nation,” Avants says.
Carlanda Williams, a 32-year-old teacher at Fresno Unified’s Greenberg Elementary, grew up in the Bay Area and says a majority of her teachers were black, like her. She knows Fresno students of color don’t have that.
“I want to be a positive role model for students who look like me because I may act different than what they see at home or in their neighborhoods. Even on the days I don’t want to get dressed up, I do, because I know they’re watching,” Williams says. “Even if it just means reading stories with Hispanic or Hmong characters, diversity is important. You have to make sure students feel represented. You have to be able to connect with them.”