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Districts need diversity in educators, too

Student teacher Courtnee Gonzalez 22 from Carpentersville her fourth grade classroom Lake Hills Elementary School Thursday. September 13 2012. |

Student teacher Courtnee Gonzalez, 22 from Carpentersville, in her fourth grade classroom at Lake in the Hills Elementary School Thursday. September 13, 2012. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 28, 2012 6:01AM

CARPENTERSVILLE — Courtnee Gonzalez said she never had a teacher who looked like her in Community Unit School District 300.

The 22-year-old Carpentersville resident — who is black, as well as part Chippewa and Cuban — moved here when she was 7 and attended Perry Elementary School. She then went to Algonquin Middle School because of overcrowding before transferring to Carpentersville Middle School and graduating from Dundee-Crown High School, also in Carpentersville.

“I don’t think I ever had a Hispanic teacher either, come to think of it. All the teachers I’ve had have been white and middle-class women. I think I had one male teacher,” Gonzalez said.

Fewer than 10 of District 300’s 1,250 teachers are black, according to district spokeswoman Allison Strupeck.

Illinois’ Interactive Report Card data for 2011 puts that number even lower, at 0.2 percent of teachers in the Carpentersville-based district, the state’s sixth-largest school district. That would be fewer than three of 1,250 teachers.

Compare that to the percentage of black students last year in the district, according to interactive report card data: 5.4. That number is nearly identical to the 5.5 percent attending District 300 schools at the start of this school year.

And while the percentage of black students has increased somewhat in the past 10 years — from 4 percent in 2001 — the percentage of black teachers in the district decreased from 0.6 percent in the same decade.

Not unique

That shortage of black teachers is not unique to District 300.

The percentage of black teachers in nearby Elgin School District U46 was only 1.8 percent last year, down from 2.2 the decade before, according to the interactive report card.

But that comes as the percentage of black students in the state’s second-largest school district has dropped, from 7.4 to 6.7. (That number also is nearly identical this year at 6.8 percent.) The number of Asian students in U46 overtook the number of black students for the first time in 2006.

And the percentage of teachers who are black has dropped in the past decade in schools across Illinois, from 10.6 percent in 2001 to 6.1 percent in 2011, according to the interactive report card. The percentage of black students also has dropped statewide, from 20.9 to 18.3 percent.

That’s “almost laughable,” according to Paul Dodson of Algonquin. And it’s one of the reasons he organized the African-American Parent Advisory Committee (AAPAC) last year in District 300.

“Your kids can go through the entire school system, from kindergarten to high school, and never see a black teacher, which is important when you start thinking about role models for kids,” said Dodson, whose daughter is a junior at Jacobs High School in Algonquin.

“If you’re going to encourage kids to go into teaching, I think it’s important for kids to see someone who looks like them in the district.”

Getting involved

Dodson said the advisory committee, modeled after similar efforts in U46, started in April 2011 by talking about building awareness and taking action, as well as gathering strength in numbers.

Since then, it has made phone calls and sent emails to a mailing list of about 100 parents and passed out information during registration this summer at several schools, Dodson said. It planned events and an essay contest with District 300 for Black History Month. It has formed an education committee, as well as a committee to plan a multicultural festival with the district, and it plans to start a scholarship fund and a student advisory group, he said.

As many as 20 people attend its monthly meetings, he said.

“The only way for this to work is the parents need to be involved,” Dodson said.

Strupeck agreed: “Parent engagement is absolutely critical to student achievement, and we are thrilled that these parents have taken such a vested interest in the achievement of their students and, by extension, all students throughout the district.”

Sharon Johnson of Carpentersville is one of those parents, with a daughter who is a junior at Dundee-Crown and a son in third grade at Perry.

Johnson said she is aware of the issues the committee has discussed, such as the shortage of black teachers and the achievement gap between black and white students — as wide as 45 points on fifth-graders’ reading scores on the ISAT. That’s because, she said, “my daughter is vocalizing what she’s seeing, and she’s pointing it out to me.”

And the committee is “a start” to resolve those issues, she said.

“I guess the first step is what’s going on right now — we’re being made aware — that we came together and put our minds together to try to reach out and let others be aware,” Johnson said.

That’s included inviting representatives from a number of area churches and community organizations to advisory committee meetings, including the Boys & Girls Clubs of Dundee Township and Big Brothers and Big Sisters of McHenry County, according to Dodson. It’s “a lot easier to work together” and quicker to take action with everybody at the table, he said.

And, he added, “When you only make up 6 percent of the population, it’s hard to get the other 94 percent interested in what you’re doing.”

The group also had several meetings with district officials in its first year “to see what we can do to close the achievement gap … and also what can be done to recruit more African-American teachers,” he said.

Strupeck said the district’s conversations with AAPAC are “very much ongoing,” and she agreed the latter might be an area in which the two could partner.

“With our recent turnover in leadership of our human resources office, this is an ideal time to see what additional steps or approaches we could take to reinforce our ongoing efforts to hire and retain a diverse group of excellent, highly qualified staff,” she said.

“Over the next couple of years, we anticipate increasing our level of outreach and participation in job fairs at various universities and colleges. Through this effort, we would like to explore universities with a higher number of minority students and historically black colleges.”

New perspective

The district has at least one new student teacher who is black this school year: Gonzalez.

The District 300 graduate said her grandmother had been a teacher for 30 years in Chicago Public Schools; and even after she moved to Carpentersville, her grandma still was involved in her after-school programs. That stuck with her, she said, and, “from a young age I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.”

But, she said, it was “a little intimidating” never to see a black teacher in her classroom as a child — what it looked like to be black and part of the profession.

In her honors classes in District 300, she was the only black student, she said. And she didn’t see many more training to become teachers alongside her at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal.

Gonzalez graduated in May with a degree in elementary education. She is teaching at Lake in the Hills Elementary School for the first eight weeks of the school year before traveling to England to finish out her student teaching with several other Illinois State graduates, she said.

While in college, she was able to travel around the world and volunteer on a Shawnee Indian reservation in Oklahoma, she said. And she’s excited now to bring a “different perspective” to the classroom — not just those perspectives she saw in her travels but also in her own upbringing, she said.

Growing up with a single mom (Kim Gonzalez, who also is part of AAPAC), she understands parents can’t always be at their students’ basketball games or science fairs, she said. She wants to create a community, a safe environment for her students, a place where they know somebody understands, she said.

“It is terrible to not experience that multiculturalism in the classroom,” Gonzalez said.

“That’s what I want to do in my classroom.”

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