Karla E. Vigil admits that she is on a mission that will outlive her.
As a co-founder of the Equity Institute, Vigil, a former teacher based in Providence, Rhode Island, is on a mission to build a diverse teacher workforce throughout New England and eventually nationwide.
“This is a task that will live on well past my time,” Vigil said, “And I’m aware of that, but it’s important to me that we pass this on to future generations.”
Countless studies have found that teachers of color can drastically improve student performance—including boosting reading and math test scores, improving graduation rates, and even reducing the number of absences. Yet, like much of the nation, Rhode Island has struggled to retain teachers of color.
In 2019, a report by John Hopkins University revealed deep-seated dysfunction within Providence’s school system. One of the main takeaways from the report was the racial disparity between teachers and students. In 2018, the Rhode Island Department of Education reported that about 91% of its students were people of color, compared to only 23% of teachers. According to the report, one teacher said, “The students feel the teachers live in a different world, and they are right.”
Vigil said she experienced the racial disconnect firsthand as a teacher of color at a predominantly white New England school. After taking the state’s teaching certification test several times, Vigil said she finally passed but was not invited back to her position for the upcoming school year. She said it effectively pushed her out of the profession. That same year, Vigil said five additional teachers, all people of color, also left the school.
Vigil’s experience follows a nationwide trend. According to diversity data from the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 80% of public school teachers nationwide are white and overwhelmingly identify as female. In New England school districts, the percentages are even higher. In New Hampshire, 98% of teachers are white. In Massachusetts, 8% of teachers are of color, and Connecticut only recently reached its benchmark of increasing the number of teachers of color to 10%. Meanwhile, the nationwide public school population is becoming increasingly diverse, with 53% students of color in 2018.
After Vigil left the classroom, she and other educators of color decided to meet monthly and eventually created a network of professional and emotional support that was missing from the schools where they taught. The meet-ups eventually garnered attention from community leaders and lawmakers and became the foundation for the Equity Institute.
“We started thinking there was something wrong with us—are we not acting a certain way, or should we change our behavior in a certain way?” Vigil said, “But we quickly realized it wasn’t us—it was the institution holding us back.”
Teachers of color point to low wages, little institutional support, and a lack of commitment to diversity efforts as part of the reason for their low numbers in New England schools. And these systemic problems aren’t new—in fact, the deeply rooted issues date back centuries.
To understand the continuing struggle to retain diverse teachers in New England schools, Dr. Michèle Foster, a professor at the University of Louisville and one of the nation’s leading researchers on Black teachers, says it’s essential to understand how segregation has persisted in the northeast region of the U.S.
The first court case challenging school segregation was argued in Massachusetts nearly a century before the landmark case of Brown v. The Board of Education. In 1847, Benjamin Roberts, one of the nation’s first Black printers, sued the city of Boston after his 5-year-old daughter Sarah was denied admission to the all-white primary school nearest to their Boston home. Instead, she was forced to attend the deteriorating all-Black school across town. In 1850, Massachusetts Supreme Court ultimately upheld racial segregation within Boston public schools, saying that racial prejudice “is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.” Forty-six years later, the ruling became the precedent for the “separate but equal” doctrine found in Plessy v. Ferguson.
After Reconstruction, while racial segregation was enforced by law in the Jim Crow South, in New England, the emergence of economically and racially segregated neighborhoods quickly created de facto segregated school districts. Boston was one of the first cities to have racially restrictive covenants in house deeds, prohibiting Black people from buying or leasing homes in certain neighborhoods.
By the 1930s, government-funded programs aimed at helping homeowners refinance their mortgages during the Great Depression introduced color-coded maps ranking the property value and worthiness of neighborhoods across the country. Neighborhoods in the green were considered desirable and high value and were mostly all white. Neighborhoods in the red were seen as hazardous, risky, and were most likely where Black residents lived.
Those living in “redlined” areas—regardless of the education or income levels of the residents—were left out of government lending programs, making it nearly impossible for homeowners to move out of those neighborhoods and ultimately creating racially segregated communities.
According to Foster, as de facto segregation continued throughout the Northeast, the lack of de jure segregation meant that white teachers were free to work in non-white schools, which meant school districts felt no overwhelming need to hire Black teachers.
“In the South, you needed [Black] teachers for those Black schools. In the North, when the schools were segregated, you didn’t necessarily need to have Black teachers in those all-Black schools—you could have white teachers,” Foster said.
In Boston, where Foster first started her teaching career, the fight for school integration during the 1960s and ’70s was as fierce as those fought throughout the South. In 1965, Massachusetts’ Racial Imbalance Act made it illegal for the student population to be more than 50% of any single racial group. After nine years of defiance from the Boston School Committee, the ruling body of the city’s public school system, a federal judge implemented a busing system, busing Black and white students to schools outside their neighborhoods.
In addition to busing students, the federal judge later ordered that 25% of all Boston school teachers be Black. At the time, teachers were not assigned to work in schools based on their residence. Instead, Black teachers and less experienced white teachers were assigned to mostly Black schools. After the order was enacted, Foster, who started her teaching career in Boston public schools, became a fifth grade teacher in an integrated school.
“I became a fifth grade teacher because the parents raised so much hell that the school board agreed to hire one Black teacher for one class of every grade,” Foster said, adding that this became a pathway for other teachers of color in the North.
The mandate quickly initiated the city’s “bussing crisis” when violent resistance to school integration made national headlines. Nearly 18,000 students were bused throughout Boston’s public schools during the 1974-75 school year, but in the same time, 30,000 students left the public school system for private schools. Teachers didn’t fare any better. Nearly 50 years later, Boston still struggles to reach the 25% threshold for Black teachers—the city has only met it once, for three years between 2000 and 2005.
Finding a radical path
Last year, Providence Public School District announced a plan to increase the number of teachers of color after receiving a $3.1 million grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to create a student loan repayment program. In Portland, Maine, voters approved an increased school spending budget that allocated $3 million for an equity investment fund focused on hiring more diverse teachers.
But Foster believes that the persisting issue of recruiting and retaining teachers of color is deeply rooted in how Black teachers have been historically forced out of the profession. After southern schools integrated, Foster said, more than 38,000 Black teachers lost their jobs, and soon after, the idea of teacher testing came about. In the Northeast, Foster said, white teachers were often hired to teach by nearly all-white school district committees.
“Those two things collided so that fewer Black people became teachers,” Foster said. “And because most of these school districts struggling to hire teachers don’t know the history, they’re asking themselves, ‘Where are the Black teachers?’—well, you fired them in the ’60s and ’70s!”
Both Vigil and Foster say that teachers of color face several hurdles designed to keep them from the classroom. Centuries-old systemic issues coupled by a global pandemic have exacerbated an already depleted diverse teaching workforce. However, they also agree that now is the perfect time to make radical changes.
“I think these school districts have to deserve having Black teachers,” Foster said. “We have to see the teachers as a gift to these places because they still see us as a burden they have to deal with and not as resources with something to offer.”
Foster holds that school leaders must be willing to make radical changes and shift their perspectives on recruiting and retaining teachers. And while the struggle for more teachers of color continues, Vigil believes students of all races bear the consequences.
“We’re showing kids that you have to look a certain way or talk a certain way—so we lead them to believe that there’s only one narrative,” Vigil said, “but we have an opportunity to be intentional about how we show the value of teachers of color.”