Connecticut schools aim to continue increasing teacher diversity
Before starting her morning class, Heysha Gjuraj made sure her computer slides were all set up and ready to go for her English Learner students.
“We’re going to be learning about the American Colonies today,” said Gjuraj. “They’ll be reading historical facts and writing them down on their laptops. We’ll be following the words together.”
Gjuraj has been an English Learner teacher at Stamford Public Schools for eight years. She moved to this country from the Dominican Republic when she was 10 years old and reflected on the importance of young children seeing teachers who look like them.
“What’s great about Stamford is it’s such a diverse place,” she said. “So you get kids from different backgrounds. Which means there’s a need for more teachers to reflect that diversity.”
A new report found that Connecticut outpaced its goals to hire more teachers of color by 10% since 2017, but more work needs to be done. Seventy percent of the 16,500 students in Stamford Public Schools identify as people of color, while 17% of the staff do. For the 2020-21 school year, 9.7% of Connecticut’s teacher workforce were of educators of color, while more than 47% of the state’s students identified as people of color, according to the state Department of Education.
Stamford school officials said they have been working on building a pipeline to recruit and retain more teachers of color.
Their most recent efforts involve the Barr Foundation, which offered a $25,000 grant through The New Teacher Project to help Stamford schools analyze current hiring practices and system needs. Once the data is completed, the project will help the district with recruitment and retainment efforts.
Leah Hamilton, Barr Foundation’s director of education, said the foundation’s decision to focus on teacher diversity was a direct response from the community. Stamford is one of eight school districts that received a grant. Other states in the region that were also awarded grants include Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
“Research has shown that having a diverse workforce that reflects the richness of one’s community creates better workspaces,” said Hamilton. “But it’s hard to make strides, and we’re here to provide resources to do that.”
With funding and dedicated support to increase educator diversity, Gjuraj said she hopes to see more teachers of color.
“Oftentimes kids come across teachers that don’t look like them and don’t sound like them,” she said. “So whenever I meet families, I always make sure to meet parents if I can in person, just so they know there is somebody here that can talk to your child. And I want everyone to feel seen.”
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the rapid rise of the diverse student population is far outpacing the diversity in educators. In the 2017-18 school year, about 79% of public school teachers across the country identified as white. The NCES report showed that about 9% of teachers were Hispanic, 7% were Black and 2% identified as Asian. Less than 2% of teachers identified as American Indian, Pacific Islander, or two or more races.
To raise those numbers, Stamford High School senior Keysha DeJesus said more students need to be encouraged to become educators. She hopes to become a high school counselor to do just that.
“I want to become a high school counselor because counselors don’t usually look like me,” said Keysha, who shared that it wasn’t until middle school when she met a teacher of color who went above and beyond to help her.
“She cared. So I think that was great,” she said. “And seeing how somebody that looks like me can be like that and help their students and make an impact on their students like me, it really made me feel like I was noticed.”
Keysha is also a student in Ed Rising, which is a national curriculum that encourages students of color to become teachers. The program was expanded in 2020 under Gov. Ned Lamont and former state Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona’s leadership. The program has 491 students enrolled in clubs and courses across 22 schools in 19 districts.
For the aspiring counselor, Keysha said she hopes by participating herself, she can help inspire more students to go into teaching.
“There’s a need for other students to see people who look like them in positions of authority,” Keysha said. “A lot of kids are lost and find it difficult to talk to people. We need more teachers who can relate to the kids and share their stories.”