Bayonne is a more diverse community than its school district’s staff reflects. More than 58 percent of students are children of color, while more than 90 percent of staff is white, according to recently released data from the NJ Department of Education. The subject was discussed at a recent special joint hearing of the State Senate Education and Higher Education Committee, where members expressed concerns that the lack of diversity among educators leaves students of color without role models who share their life experiences.
Bayonne’s disparities are on par with the rest of the state, where more than 56 percent of public school students are people of color, while 84 percent of their teachers are white. Educators in New Jersey are less diverse than the country, which reported 18 percent of teachers identifying as “nonwhite” in 2015-2016. Compared to other school districts in Hudson County, Bayonne is one of the more racially homogeneous. Kearny and Secaucus have similar white-to-nonwhite staff-to-student ratios as Bayonne. Jersey City, Hoboken, Union City, West New York, and North Bergen are more diverse than Bayonne, Kearny, and Secaucus.
“I wasn’t ‘woke’ back then, like the kids say. I didn’t realize I had a lack of those teachers until I got older.” — Christopher Munoz
Students need teachers who look like them
“Sadly, I didn’t have minority teachers when I was at Bayonne High School,” said Bayonne Board of Education Trustee Christopher Munoz, who was the first person of color elected to the board. “I wasn’t ‘woke’ back then, like the kids say. I didn’t realize I had a lack of those teachers until I got older.”
“Right now, you don’t see a lot of strong role models for people of color,” said Munoz. “It is so crucial for students to see teachers who look like them, who share cultural and life experiences. It’s empowering to see a teacher who looks like them.”
“So many of our young people don’t have a lot of positive role models they can count on, and I think it’s very important to see people doing different things in life that show them that if they can do it, students can, too,” said Sen. Sandra Cunningham, who represents Hudson County and chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. “You can tell a child everyday you can do this or that. But if they don’t see anyone doing those things, it doesn’t have any power.”
Relateable role models
A male history teacher at Bayonne High School inspired to Munoz to teach history today. He teaches courses in Latino and African-American history at Hoboken High School.
“I want to be that guy who gets kids excited about learning,” said Munoz. “When I’m teaching Latino history, they relate to me on a different level because I’m a Latino.”
Cunningham was fortunate to have a cousin who worked as a teacher. When Cunningham was eight years old, that cousin gave her a dictionary.
“If I mispronounced a word, she came running and told me to look at the dictionary,” said Cunningham, who still reads the dictionary for ‘fun.’ “By learning words and how to pronounce words, it made it easier to give speeches and express myself. I think my love of words comes from that experience with her.”
Attracting candidates of color
“For years, Bayonne has been trying to attract more candidates from minority communities,” said Interim Superintendent Michael A. Wanko. “We actively recruit, but we have not been that successful so far.”
Wanko said that the district’s fiscal mistakes in 2017 that resulted in a net loss of 70 teachers could be a future opportunity to restaff those positions with people of color. Administrators have been proactive in recruiting people of color at college campuses and have advertised their superintendent positions in African-American and Latino education publications.
Racial disparities among teachers reflect an uncomfortable truth about U.S. society. People of color are less likely to attend college due to policies that systemically deny economic resources to those communities. Though there has been some improvement. In 1990, 11.3 percent of African-Americans had four-year college degrees, compared to 22 percent for white people, according to U.S. Census data. In 2017, those numbers had risen to 24 and 34.5 percent, respectively.
The teacher education and certification process disproportionately excludes educators of color by keeping costs of taking competency tests and academic standards out of reach. An analysis by the Educational Testing Service, which produces the Praxis exams, found that candidates of color were dramatically more likely to fail the basic skills test. In New Jersey, a GPA of at least a 3.0 is required to become a teacher, which would exclude nearly half of black college graduates and more than one-third of Hispanic college graduates, according to a 2012 federal report.
“If no one talks about it, and no one brings it up, nothing gets done. There has to be a beginning. This is a beginning.” — Sandra Cunningham
Goal set for greater diversity
These competency tests began in the South in the 1970s, coinciding with efforts to integrate schools. Critics at the time said their purpose was to exclude teachers of color.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Education is setting a goal to have novice teachers, who have been teaching for four years or less, reflect the diversity of public school students by 2025.
“I think people will start being more cognizant about this,” said Cunningham. “If no one talks about it, and no one brings it up, nothing gets done. There has to be a beginning. This is a beginning.”
For updates on this and other stories check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Rory Pasquariello can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.