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Why Diversity in Education Leadership Matters

As we honor Black History Month, Crystal Rountree (Metro Atlanta ‘03) considers how African American leaders can address the challenges black students face in our schools.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A few years ago, a student in Dymir Arthur’s classroom told him: “I’ll never achieve my goals in life because I’m black.”

This sentence was a turning point for Dymir, who was a Teach For America corps member at the time, and is a New York City school leader today. “It made me realize that it’s not just an educational crisis,” Dymir said. “It’s an identity crisis.”

Dymir’s doing his part to address that crisis—he’s a dedicated educator, committed to strong school culture, student empowerment, and academic results. As an African American male, he’s also living proof to his students that they can reach their dreams. There are many more Dymirs in our network, which I am proud to be a part of.

This Black History Month, when the country considers the crisis in black education, it’s helpful to note the role African American leaders can play in addressing the challenges. Diversity in education leadership matters. I’ve lived this. In my own life, I can count on one hand the number of black teachers that I had throughout my K-12 educational experience. In those rare cases when my teacher shared my background, I had a different level of confidence—and I saw in them what was possible for my future. I strived to be that same example for my own students when I became a first grade teacher at A.D. Williams Elementary School in Atlanta.

Too often our kids believe they won’t achieve their goals because of the color of their skin, or where they live.

Teachers, school leaders, and community advocates in our network are doing their part to address this notion—as dedicated leaders, committed to strong school culture, student empowerment, and academic results. And many teachers and leaders of color are living proof to their students that they can reach their dreams.   

A disparity in African American student achievement has existed for decades. Even so, we have seen progress in areas like the African American high school graduation rate increasing from 59 percent in 2003 to 74 percent in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. My experience is that children, of any race, will rise to the occasion when they are believed in, supported, and challenged. 

Teach For America is committed to equity and diversity in our corps, and within our organization. Over the past few years, we’ve ramped up our efforts in recruiting an even more diverse corps. In 2009, for instance, 9 percent of our corps members identified as African American; today, 20 percent do—compared to less than 7 percent of teachers nationwide. We’re one of the largest single providers of teachers of color in the country, and roughly half of all of this year’s corps members identify as people of color.  

And diversity among our corps members becomes diversity among our alumni leaders and staff; 15 percent of our alumni school leaders are black, 20 percent of our staff identify as African American; and 3 out of 7 members of our leadership team are African American women. This isn’t accidental—it’s the result of purposeful recruitment in the name of finding the leaders that could make a great impact in the classroom and beyond. By building a network of leaders that is diverse in every way, we will benefit from the many perspectives, experiences, and relationships that each member brings to the table.

One of many efforts to help find still more great talent, we will continue our recruitment at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, for instance—like my alma mater, Clark Atlanta University, and working with black and Latino Greek organizations and campus cultural centers, among other things.  

For 25 years, Teach For America has worked to introduce our nation’s up and coming leaders to the issue of education inequity and build a force for change. My work is a result of this effort and my commitment to being a part of an organization that helps to encourage leaders from all backgrounds to invest their efforts into building a more equitable future for all students, including African Americans, is as solid as ever. This Black History Month, I encourage you to consider making a similar commitment. Our students are waiting.  

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