This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Patrick Fleury remembers that growing up in Cheltenham, he was already past his impressionable younger years before ever seeing a teacher who looked like him.
“I took notice,” he said. “It was more subconsciously. I was walking through the hallway, and I remember thinking that up until middle school I never saw a black male teacher.”
By the time he had finished high school, he had encountered “maybe six to seven” black male teachers and other authority figures in school. “I could count them,” he said, starting to tick off their names.
Today, Fleury, 30, works at his alma mater, Cheltenham High School, in Montgomery County. He is a special education teacher, helps lead the project-based learning initiative, and is the head basketball coach. He loves his job. But in a district where 53 percent of the students are African American, he is among just a handful of teachers who identify as black males. In 2016-17, according to the latest data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, black male teachers made up just 1 percent of the 344 teachers in Cheltenham – meaning that there were only three or four in the entire district.
The Notebook’s review of statewide data found that racial disparities between student bodies and their teachers are stark among schools in the Pennsylvania suburbs of Philadelphia – Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties – mirroring the situation statewide. Pennsylvania as a whole has one of the largest disparities in the nation between the racial and ethnic composition of its student body and its teacher corps.
White students, white teachers
Just more than half – 52 percent – of the schools in these four suburban counties have no black teachers. Among these schools, around two-thirds have no teachers of color at all, which usually coincides with a majority white student body. There are 18 schools in these counties where more than 90 percent of students are white; among those schools, 11 have an all-white teaching force.
The number of Asian and Hispanic teachers is even less – 63 percent of the suburban schools have no Asian or Hispanic teachers. Unlike the trends for black and white teachers, however, there seems to be little correlation between the concentration of Hispanic and Asian students and the presence of Asian or Hispanic teachers.
Some suburban districts, such as Interboro, Haverford, and West Chester, as well as Cheltenham, say they are trying to hire more teachers of color and bring more diverse perspectives into the classroom.
“Diversity has become a greater priority over the past three years because our students are becoming more diverse in all areas, whether that’s by race or socioeconomic status,” said David Criscuolo, Interboro School District’s director of human resources.
Criscuolo said that Interboro, in Delaware County, hired two to three staff members of color over the past summer, including a foreign language teacher from Egypt. Before, the district only had one teacher of color – a Hispanic high school teacher.
In the Haverford School District, also in Delaware County, a recent report from the Havertown-Area Community Action Network caused controversy, citing racist incidents and practices in the district. In addition to microaggressions, black students are disproportionately disciplined and few are in advanced classes, the report said.
At a meeting in October, Haverford school officials took issue with some of the findings, but Board President Lawrence Feinberg said that the district is actively working to employ more educators of color. In Haverford, 98 percent of the teachers are white and just 1 percent are black. The remaining 1 percent is mostly Asian and Hispanic. Among students, 84 percent are white and 5 percent are black.
“One of the goals that our school board set for our superintendent was to try and increase the racial diversity of our staff,” Feinberg said.
He said that Haverford recently joined the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence & Equity (DVCEE), which hosts an annual recruitment fair for candidates of color, among other initiatives to help educators better serve increasingly diverse communities.
Scarcity in the teacher pool
Jeffrey Ulmer, director of human resources for the West Chester School District, in Chester County, said that besides being part of the DVCEE, his district recruits teachers from historically black colleges in the Philadelphia area. But Cheyney University, long a source of area black teachers, is facing academic and fiscal woes, and its enrollment has plummeted.
“We also go to black leaders in our community and ask them for recommendations on teacher candidates,” Ulmer said.
Increasing racial diversity among teachers, however, may be difficult for smaller suburban districts without the sufficient time and resources for targeted recruitment efforts.
“I think most administrators would like to see a more diverse teaching and staff population, but you really have to make an effort to get that done,” said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).
DiRocco said that districts have to post their job openings in “venues where teachers of color will see those postings and apply for the job,” such as colleges with more graduates of color.
“Some districts have the personnel and time to do that, but a lot of smaller districts don’t,” he said.
Cheltenham Superintendent Wagner Marseille, the first black male to lead the district, said he is working hard to recruit more teachers of color while also making sure that all staff in its overwhelmingly white teaching corps get extensive and ongoing training in “cultural competency.”
“When I arrived, I did make it a priority to diversify the teaching force,” said Marseille, a lifelong educator who has led the 4,700-student district since 2015.
A ‘grow your own’ strategy
Like other districts, Cheltenham recruits at historically black colleges and universities and goes to fairs and events meant to attract educators of color. But it is rough going, he said, because there are so many leaks in the pipeline. His solution, in part, is a “grow your own” approach.
“It behooves school systems to get ahead of that race, rather than wait for a conveyor belt of teachers to land at their doors,” said Marseille. That requires making sure that students, especially those of color, “have a rigorous experience that leads to post-secondary attainment that leads them to choosing a career in education and coming back to the district.” Fleury is a success story in that regard – a black male Cheltenham graduate who now teaches there.
Unfortunately, though, the typical U.S. educational experience for black students – for whom graduation rates are lower, discipline rates are higher, and access to the highest-level courses more limited – hasn’t reached the point where teaching becomes an attractive option, Marseille said.
As far as recruiting more black males, “we’ve had an increase, but that number for males, unfortunately, continues to mirror the national average” of less than 2 percent, he said.
According to the latest figures provided by the district, from 2018, Cheltenham employs 38 African American male and female teachers for its seven schools, or 8 percent of a workforce total of 447. The most recent state data, for 2016-17, shows that Cheltenham High has a teaching staff of 114. Of that number, 3 percent of teachers are black females and 1 percent black males.
Cheltenham teacher and basketball coach Patrick Fleury watches his players during practice drills. (Photo: Darryl Murphy)
Despite his own recognition that growing up, he had few black male teachers, it wasn’t until Fleury got to college that he ever thought of becoming a teacher himself. He hoped for a career in sports, majoring in sports management and communications.
But mentors at East Stroudsburg University, where he was captain of the basketball team, edged him into education, telling him he could also be a coach. So he earned a master’s degree and certification in special education.
Still, “it wasn’t a direct path,” he said of his career.
Before joining the Cheltenham School District in January 2015, he taught in several Philadelphia charter schools, including at a special disciplinary program run by Camelot at Mastery-Gratz High School.
Fleury said he tries to talk to his students, especially African Americans, about aspiring to teach. But, he said, it is often a hard sell.
There are several issues. For many black males – who are often subjected to lower academic expectations and harsher discipline – school is often not a congenial place for them or their parents. Speaking of U.S. education as a whole, he noted that “the general feeling between school, parents, and administrations has been adversarial for minorities historically. So the idea of becoming a teacher for a young male doesn’t come to mind unless someone puts it in you.”
Second, it doesn’t pay so well compared to other options. When he was growing up, he said, “That wasn’t one of the professions I saw, whether subconsciously or consciously, as a high-earning job.”
He agrees with Marseille that it is necessary to start early in preparing students of color to teach, even in preschool, by making sure they are well prepared for kindergarten and continue to have a good experience as they proceed through their formal education.
Another issue is one that Marseille referred to as a “chicken or the egg” problem.
Fleury explained it this way: “If there aren’t that many role models or examples within their school experience, it … won’t be a profession that they consider.”
He would like some of his students to pursue teaching, and he tries to be a positive role model. Still, when he counsels students about their futures, he often encourages them to consider becoming entrepreneurs or starting their own business, he said.
But he also tries to instill in them the value of being socially conscious and contributing to their communities no matter what they do.
“I always tell them that, for sure, their role is to give back to whoever is in their community and whoever is around them,” he said, to “teach what they know through the experiences they have.
“Right now I can say I am pushing them to explore their interests,” he said, “and if teaching is that, I definitely support it.”