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Minority teachers in short supply in Rochester

By Matthew Stolle

The Post-Bulletin

Malachi Johnson is the kind of success story the Rochester school district would like to repeat. He teaches third grade at Riverside Central Elementary School, and the fourth-year teacher says he’s "loved every minute" of it.

Johnson’s experience, however, is an exception to a problem that administrators have struggled to resolve: a lack of minority teachers.

That percentage is stuck at less than 3 percent, even as the district’s minority enrollment continues to rise. It now stands at about 27 percent and growing.

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Johnson, 27, doesn’t deny that the experience has been challenging. The job can be a balancing act, and at times he feels as if he is expected to fill the role as "the voice for minorities." Yet if he advocates for minority students too strenuously, he risks criticism that he’s too focused on them.

"It’s tough to balance being an advocate for minority students and being the only minority," said Johnson, the only black teacher in a school with a minority enrollment of 45 percent.

School officials say their inability to recruit and retain minority teachers isn’t due to a lack of effort. The biggest problem is that there are not nearly enough minority teachers in the pipeline to satisfy even a fraction of that demand.

"The issue, from my perspective, is that there are not enough minority students in teacher education programs to meet the needs of all of the school districts that need to diversify their work force. That is a fact. That’s not me making it up," said Tim Alexander, the district’s director of human resources.

Now there is evidence of a greater push to address the problem. Rep. Kim Norton, a Democrat from Rochester, is sponsoring legislation to establish a loan-forgiveness program for aspiring teachers of color.

Norton, a former Rochester School Board member, said the problem is not confined to the Rochester school district. The problem is national.

"It’s a constant frustration," Norton said. "Ideally, at least in Rochester Public Schools, our goal is to have our teacher pool reflect the diversity in the community and in the schools."

Her bill would revive a similar program that was axed in the Rochester schools’ budget cuts of 2003. Norton’s proposal would make minority students eligible for loans of up to $5,000 a semester in both their junior and senior years. Freshly-minted teachers who work in a district with at least 15 percent minority enrollment could have a portion of that loan forgiven — to the tune of $2,500 a year for four years.

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Norton’s proposal also comes at a time when Rochester’s new superintendent, Romain Dallemand, has made closing the achievement gap between whites and minority students his top priority.

Dallemand, whose selection makes him Rochester’s first black superintendent, stressed in a recent interview that closing the achievement gap won’t be achieved by focusing on a single factor or strategy. But recruiting and hiring more minority teachers will be an element of that effort.

"I do not know a school district that closed the gap without addressing the diversity issue" of its faculty, Dallemand said.

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