Philadelphia School Board, Here Is Another Opportunity to Ensure Teacher Diversity

Pennsylvania’s teacher roster is the least diverse in the nation; less than 5 percent of Pennsylvania’s teachers are people of color, according to the state Department of Education. Yet evidence regularly points to the benefits for students when they are exposed to educators who share their background and culture. We also know that diverse teachers are great for white students as well.

The district has laudibly stated its priority to recruit teachers of color.  This month, it has the opportunity to reinforce its commitment to that priority by voting to continue to have Teach For America (TFA) placed in our schools.  

Outside of HBCUs, TFA is the largest provider of teachers of color in the country.  In Philadelphia, and around the country, this year’s TFA corps of teachers is nearly half educators of color, far more diverse than the teacher colleges across our city and state. (Nationally, only 18 percent of teachers are diverse across all teacher preparation programs.)

Approximately 30% of TFA teachers are first-generation college graduates, and more than 40% received Pell Grants (an indication of family income levels). Their presence in Philadelphia makes for a more vibrant and diverse district where a greater number of students have access to an equitable and excellent education – an urban district where teachers were once forty percent Black (currently estimated at twenty-four percent).

But, how is TFA able to consistently reach and hire diverse candidates? A few years ago, I was on a panel at the Center for American Progress and we explored how.

TFA’s success in recruiting a diverse corps is based on a strategy of hands-on recruitment that actively works to reach students of color where they are. The entire recruitment team is responsible for meeting the organization’s diversity goals, and they receive specialized training to help them connect with potential applicants from many backgrounds. The organization makes a point of meeting with candidates individually or in small groups to begin building relationships, rather than waiting for potential candidates to come to them.

Recruiters set goals around the number of face-to-face contacts they will make with students of color and track indicators of progress toward those goals. They…speak to classes and student organizations; they have visited more than 25 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and multiple colleges with large Latino student populations.

They also frequently seek input from current corps members of color to ensure that TFA is a place where people of color feel comfortable and welcome, since word of mouth from current and former members is one of TFA’s most important recruitment tools. The effort to ensure that TFA is a welcoming environment includes developing cultural competence in its staff members, and over the past few years, TFA has launched an organizationwide, multisession diversity series focused on how the organization is working to live up to its core values in regards to diversity.

I was an (alternatively certified) teacher and principal in our city for many years.  During that time and through today, I’ve had the pleasure of working with great teachers – traditionally trained and through alternative pathways like TFA.  In 2003, as the principal at a District school, Shaw Middle School in Southwest Philadelphia, I was one of the first principals to partner with TFA when the organization first came to the city, by placing a number of young TFA teachers in my school.  

Those teachers were passionate about equity, committed to serving in disadvantaged schools, and resilient in their pursuit of learning. And most of them continue to work in education today – a school counselor in the district, school-based and district administrators, reading specialists, a director of a summer school, an education researcher, teachers, among many others.  Diverse teachers aren’t just role models, they can help elevate the entire profession.

The partnership with TFA continued through my tenure as a principal at Mastery Shoemaker campus where 40% of my leadership team and teaching staff were made up of Teach For America teachers and alumni; a TFA alum is my successor as principal. Today, as CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development, I’m proud to continue to partner with TFA as we work together to prioritize retention of their Black educators.

Choosing to commit to a program and network proven to serve the needs of underserved students is a no-brainer, especially at a time when the district is whiter than ever before and continues to have vacancies in classrooms and subject areas where great teachers are needed most. 

Teach For America is a proven partner in Philadelphia, helping to ensure the diversity of our teaching force reflects that of our student body. The network is a critical pipeline of talented, diverse leaders who fill many of the hardest-to-staff positions in high-need schools and drive student progress in classrooms and schools.

Teach For America is not the singular answer to our problems, nor have they ever claimed to be, but they’ve certainly proven to be part of the solution. In a city where we need to hire up to seven hundred teachers per year, TFA can and should remain a part of our human resources action plan.

At a time when the District and partners are committed to inspiring and promising initiatives, such as  Aspire to Educate,  and partnering with the Center for Black Educator Development, ending our partnership with Teach For America is counter to a stated and just commitment of a diverse teacher pipeline being essential to our city.  Diverse and qualified teachers are a part of the educational justice all our students and school communities deserve.

Teach For America continues to evolve and continues to serve as a key lever in the fight for students in Philadelphia. I urge members of the school board to vote YES to continue to partner with Teach For America. Together, we can pursue educational justice and address the entrenched issue of a significant lack of teacher diversity in our schools. Those sixty plus diverse teacher candidates should be a part of our teacher pool that shows up to teach our very diverse student body. We owe our students that.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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