The Color of School Reform
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans fired its mostly black teacher corps. Now its charter schools are trying to convince black educators that there’s a place for them.
Foster knew she’d be one of just a few black teachers when she started working at this New Orleans charter school in 2012. While the overwhelming majority of the student body is black, nearly two-thirds of the teachers were white when she took the job. But her first year of teaching was hectic, filled with home visits, grueling lesson planning, and a schoolwide move to a brand new building. The racial makeup of the staff wasn’t a concern she had time for—until she realized that her kids were noticing it.
“I heard a student say, ‘Ms. Foster, I can’t get away with stuff with you because you’re black, but I can with this teacher because she’s white,’ ” she says.
Even innocuous interactions, like taking students to lunch or giving them rides home, came to be characterized by students racially. If a white teacher did something nice for a student, the student might muse, “Why isn’t the person that looks like me nice to me?” Foster says. “To me, that was them telling me, ‘I wish I had more.’ ”
What the students wanted more of was teachers who looked like them and came from a similar background, teachers who understood how they talked, behaved, and lived. And increasingly, Foster agreed: More teachers like her—black and from New Orleans—was exactly what schools like KIPP Central City Academy needed.
That realization has spread among charter school and school reform leaders nationwide in recent years as they have increasingly recognized that neglecting the racial composition of their ranks could stunt their attempt to reach and serve students of color. Charter school teachers, like the teaching profession nationally, are predominately white. And in post-Katrina New Orleans, they are more likely to be white than traditional schoolteachers are.
This new focus on recruiting minority teachers hasn’t met immediate success. Teach for America has signed up significantly more teachers of color, and charter networks around the country have kicked off similar recruiting campaigns. But the New Orleans experience shows how challenging the work can be: Charter leaders there still struggle to hire more black and local teachers—and to convince veteran teachers that they, too, are needed in the school-reform movement.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans school system boasted a significantly higher share of black teachers than most urban districts. In 2003, just 15 percent of teachers in large cities across the country were black. In New Orleans, where nearly all students are black, that figure was 72 percent.
In the aftermath of Katrina, the school board fired the district’s thousands of teachers en masse as it reconstituted the system as one largely composed of charter schools. Many educators weren’t rehired; some left teaching, or the city, for goodNew Orleans needs more black teachers and knows it. Why is progress so slow?: