The mission—Getting more Black teachers into PPS

Pennsylvania

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GEORGE BOOKER, a paraprofessional with Pittsburgh Public Schools, applies for the Para2Teacher program, which would enable him to obtain a master’s degree in education in two years. (Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)

by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer

African American students make up 53 percent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools district, while White students make up 33 percent.

But when it comes to the teachers in Pittsburgh Public Schools, only 16 percent are “of color,” and 84 percent are White.

While “of color” refers to teachers who classify as Black, Asian, Hispanic, American-Indian and Multi-Racial, 90 percent of the teachers who classify themselves as “of color” are, indeed, Black.

The district admits—the above statistics are a problem.

BRIA WESTRY, right, is a paraprofessional at Pittsburgh Conroy. She applied to the new Para2Teacher program, which would enable Westry to obtain a master’s degree in education from Grand Canyon University in two years. (Photo by Courier photographer Rob Taylor Jr.)

Thus, they’ve introduced a program that allows current PPS paraprofessionals (classroom aides, the majority of whom are Black) who have a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of experience as a paraprofessional in the district to earn their master’s degree in education at a discounted financial cost, while still maintaining their full-time employment status with the district. A master’s degree in education, combined with a certified teaching license from the state of Pennsylvania, will make those paraprofessionals eligible to spring into a teaching position with PPS, starting as early as the 2021-2022 school year.

“They don’t reflect reality,” PPS Director of Talent Management Brian Glickman told the New Pittsburgh Courier about the lack of Black teachers in the district. “(Roughly) 85 percent of our teachers are White, and that’s not the world we’re preparing our students to enter.” Glickman said those comments aren’t supported by research, “but supported by common sense.”

While there are more than 400 paraprofessionals in the district, there are 127 paraprofessionals who possess a bachelor’s degree and at least three years of seniority as a paraprofessional in the district. Of those 127, 56 percent are Black. Only those 127 paraprofessionals are eligible for the “Para2Teacher” program, of which an initial cohort of up to 33 paraprofessionals will be selected for the two-year master’s program via Grand Canyon University, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based private, Christian school which offers the master’s in education online. Grand Canyon University also became the best fit for the program because it offered a 23.5 percent reduction in tuition for PPS employees.

Those paraprofessionals selected for the initial cohort will also each receive $3,000 per year ($1,500 from the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, $1,500 from PPS) to help with tuition costs.

The money the district is providing to each paraprofessional in the cohort comes from a $49,500 grant by The Heinz Endowments.

Given that today’s first-year teacher in Pittsburgh Public Schools earns roughly $47,000 according to Glickman, a significantly higher salary than that of a paraprofessional—combined with the overall less cost to attain a master’s in education thanks to the program, it’s something African American paraprofessionals like George Booker couldn’t pass up.

Booker, along with roughly 30 other mostly-Black paraprofessionals, applied for the “Para2Teacher” program with the assistance of Grand Canyon University officials at an “Application Day” held at the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers building on the South Side, Oct. 3.

Booker, a current paraprofessional at Oliver Citywide Academy, said it’s imperative for Black students in the district to see more Black teachers in the schools. He said that as a Pittsburgh native who graduated from Perry Traditional Academy, he understands what many Black students are going through. “A lot of our students are being raised by the grandparents; some of their parents are incarcerated, some of their parents are deceased, some of our students feel hopeless in their situations at home,” he told the Courier. “I just feed them positive words, positive encouragement. You can really aspire to be whatever you want to be, you just have to have a goal and some plans. Set a plan for your life,” Booker tells many Black students, “continue to work towards each goal, daily, weekly, monthly.”

“There are significant benefits for students of color to be taught by teachers of color, but the benefits are not limited to just the students of color—it’s actually beneficial for all students to have a more diverse teaching staff,” Glickman told the Courier.

Glickman then cited research data provided to the district (and other districts nationwide) that showed “significant reductions” in student absenteeism and dropout rates for students of color. “There’s research that supports an improved school climate for all students, not just students of color” when the teachers are more diverse, Glickman said.

Research wasn’t needed to convince PPS Black paraprofessionals Robyn Stackhouse and Bria Westry that more Black teachers equals a better overall Black student performance.

“I feel like students need people who are dedicated to their education…and (from) people who have similar backgrounds,” Stackhouse, a paraprofessional for autistic students in grades 3-5 at Pittsburgh Morrow, said.

“I grew up in the same neighborhoods that they are growing up in and I currently am still living in the same neighborhoods that they are living in,” said Westry, who resides in Chartiers City, near Sheraden. “I think I can make a difference for my students’ educational lives by teaching them and allowing them to see someone that’s like them.”

Westry is a paraprofessional at Pittsburgh Conroy.

Glickman said prior to the “Application Day” event held at the PFT building, Oct. 3, he had received applications from eligible paraprofessionals who couldn’t attend the event. He told the Courier that out of those applications, two-thirds were from current Black paraprofessionals in the district.

Combine those applications with the 30 or so that were filled out in-person during the Oct. 3 event by mostly-Black paraprofessionals, and the pool from which the initial cohort of 33 participants will be chosen should be at least 75 percent Black.

Those chosen will begin online classes on Oct. 24, with an expected graduation date of May 2021. While those in the cohort aren’t guaranteed a full-time teaching job with the district after they attain the master’s degree, Glickman said they will receive “preferential hiring.”

Glickman added: “Obviously we wouldn’t launch a program for this if it wasn’t our intention to try to hire them,” but a state law commonly referred to as the “Eligibility List” only allows a district such as PPS to hire the top 10 percent of candidates within any defined certification area.

“Paraprofessionals who complete this program will automatically be on our ‘Eligible List,’ so while they’re not guaranteed jobs, they’re guaranteed to be considered for jobs,” Glickman said.

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