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State education leaders have unveiled a new initiative to help attract and retain educators of color.

Nearly a third of students in Pennsylvania are young people of color. Few, however, have the opportunity to be taught by educators who look like themselves. Research shows that 96 percent of teachers in the state are white.

To address this demographic gap in public education, state leaders announced a new pilot program recently that aims to diversify their pool of educators. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Aspiring to Educate is the first program of its kind in the nation. 

“Aspiring to Educate will help Pennsylvania attract, recruit, train and retain a new generation of teachers and school leaders,” Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said during the program’s announcement at the Community College of Philadelphia in November. “It will not only help the commonwealth address the shortage of educators and the lack of diversity in the teacher pipeline but will also provide a career pathway for students into the teaching profession.”

The three-tiered program, which will launch in the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) in January, is the result of a partnership between the school district, the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the Community College of Philadelphia, several universities, as well as local education and youth organizations. 

Next month, SDP is expected to select its first cohort of high school juniors and seniors who have expressed an interest in becoming teachers and help pave the way for them to ultimately graduate from one of the program’s partnering universities and enter the education field. In addition to receiving mentoring through the Philadelphia Youth Network and the Center for Black Educator Development, students will also be awarded financial assistance while they’re enrolled in college.

Additionally, the education leaders hope to “equip those teachers in the pipeline, and current in-service teachers, with the knowledge, tools, and supports needed to be culturally responsive educators,” according to the Department of Education.

“A lot of states look at just one part of the pipeline,” Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development, said during the program’s announcement last month. “They may look at retention, or this is how we build. But in reality those are just potholes. This is a comprehensive plan that addresses a pathway. You can either fill potholes, or you can build the road. This is building the road.”

Only three counties in Pennsylvania—Philadelphia, Delaware, and Pike—report having a double-digit percentage of teachers of color on their staff.

Adults who already have 30 credit hours toward their teacher certification and those who have earned a bachelor’s degree and are now interested in teaching may also be eligible to participate in the initiative.  

According to a policy brief from Research For Action, only three counties in Pennsylvania—Philadelphia, Delaware, and Pike—report having a double-digit percentage of teachers of color on their staff. “In the remaining 41 reporting counties—serving 71.3% of  all Pennsylvania students and 53.5% of all students of color in Pennsylvania—the percentage of teachers of color is in the single digits,” the report’s authors write. “Six of these counties report no teachers of color. In 23 counties,  the data are not reported.”

The authors also note that “leaks” in the “teachers of color pipeline,” which contribute to the lack of representation in schools, include fewer high school graduates of color attending college, and fewer students overall, including minority students, enrolling in teacher preparation programs.

The benefits of children and teens having same-race teachers have been well-documented: For example, research shows Black students who have teachers who look like them are less likely to be suspended/expelled or drop out of school.

Though Pennsylvania has one of the highest teacher-student diversity gap, the issue affects every state. A 2016 U.S. Department of Education report found that the general workforce in elementary and secondary schools is overwhelmingly white—82 percent, in fact. 

Diversity has increased, albeit slowly: Researchers found that during the 1987-88 school year, 13 percent of public school teachers in the U.S. were people of color. By 2011-12, that percentage had crept up to 18 percent.