There are no African American teachers in any of the four elementary schools in Forest Park District 91 even though almost half of the students are African American.
Only three, all at Forest Park Middle School and all female, of the district’s 103 teachers, are African American. Just under 48 percent of the students attending District 91 schools are African American.
Over 93 percent of the district’s teachers are white, compared to just 29 percent of its students.
Is this a problem? It depends on whom you ask.
“It’s not a problem, just as the fact that we don’t have more men is not a problem,” said District 91 Superintendent Randy Tinder. “Is it something we would like to have more of? Of course. But our goal is to get the best teachers. It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re black or white or brown or whether they’re male or female. Do I think it’s an issue someone should be concerned about? No I don’t. It’s only an issue if someone wants something to pick at.”
Lisa Sutton, however, has a different opinion.
Sutton is the mother of a fourth grader at Betsy Ross School and a December National Lewis University teaching graduate who just completed her student teaching at Field Stevenson School in December.
“I think it’s a major problem,” said Sutton. “The kids don’t have anyone to relate to.”
Sutton said that in her experience African American teachers are less likely to be intimidated by black students and will not shrug off misconduct. Black kids will know they can’t con someone of their own culture, and African American teachers will not be shy about demanding the best in behavior and academic performance from African American students, she said.
Sutton feels that sometimes African American teachers will have higher expectations for African American students. Many experts feel that high teacher expectations are key to improving the academic performance of black students.
Sutton said that she wonders if District 91 is very welcoming to African American teachers. After getting her degree in December, Sutton called district headquarters to apply to be a substitute teacher in District 91, but said that she was told that the district did not need any more substitutes and was not adding any more names to their substitute list.
So instead of teaching in Forest Park, Sutton is now teaching fourth grade as a permanent substitute in the Chicago Public Schools.
Tinder insists that race should only be a minor factor, if considered at all, in hiring teachers.
“We’ll employ the best teachers we can find and I don’t care what color they are,” said Tinder. “To hire someone on the basis of their race is the wrong thing to do. If we’re able to find the best candidate and they happen to be a minority that’s a plus.”
The district advertises its teaching positions on two web sites, one a site maintained by the State Board of Education called the Illinois job bank and one maintained by the Cook County regional superintendent of schools.
Tinder pointed out that the district has no way of knowing the race of its applicants because for most of the applicants the district only sees a resume. Principals, who are primarily responsible for hiring teachers for their own school, look at resumes and determine the top candidates, usually five or six, to interview.
Bill Milnamow, the principal of Betsy Ross School, said he normally gets 50 to 60 resumes for an open teaching position.
“We don’t know what race, what nationality they are,” said Milnamow.
But Milnamow knows what he is looking for. “I try to get teachers with Masters Degrees and I look for an emphasis in reading and math.” Milnamow said that he likes to hire teachers with a few years of experience.
Would he like to hire an African American teacher for his school, which is equally balanced between black and white students?
“I think if we can get a strong African American role model in our building it would be great,” said Milnamow. “It’s just a matter of finding them. They are in high demand.”
Many districts, especially those with diverse student populations, are actively looking for African American teachers.
Neighboring Oak Park elementary district 97 has 44.1 percent minority student enrollment and 18.7 percent of its teachers are minorities, according to District 97 figures.
District 97 recruits teachers at job fairs, said Felicia Starks Turner, District 97’s director of human resources. District 91, a small district that is one fifth the size of District 97, has no equivalent position and cannot identify minority teachers at job fairs.
But Karen Bukowski, the principal at Forest Park Middle School, does a little extra outreach of her own. Bukowski posts job openings with two universities with high African American enrollments, Chicago State University and Roosevelt University, in an effort to attract more African-American candidates. District 91’s pay scale, which is in the lower third of comparable districts, can make it hard to compete with other diverse districts. In District 91, a teacher just out of school with a bachelor’s degree and no experience will earn $30,450 while the beginning salary in Oak Park is $35,070. A teacher with a masters and no experience will earn just $33,322 in District 91, compared to $39,278 in District 97. The maximum pay for a District 91 teacher is $64,949 compared to $80,806 in District 97.
“It’s a sellers market,” said Tinder referring to the competition for African American teachers.
Thirteen support staff, including teacher aides, are minorities in District 91 according to Tinder, including three Hispanics and three Asian Americans.
But that does not satisfy Monique Green, an African American parent of two kindergarteners at Garfield White.
“We have grown past a point in our lives where we should be door watchers and aides,” said Green. “Reach out more. I’m not saying favor blacks, by no means, but I know plenty of African American teachers are out there.”
Sean Blaylock, the only African American member of the District 91 school board, said that it would help to have more African American teachers, particularly men, teach in District 91.
“There is a huge benefit to having role models,” said Blaylock. “Where do we look without sacrificing quality? If you’re not looking you might not find them. We might have to do it one teacher at a time.”