The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress in diversifying Long Island's teacher workforce, but expected end-of-school-year resignations and early retirements should create hiring opportunities for school districts, education advocates said.

Many of Long Island's teaching staffs — there are 36,000 teachers in public schools instructing 418,257 students — remain overwhelmingly white and majority female. In some districts, minority children, especially boys, may rarely — if ever — see a teacher who looks like them. Of the Island's teachers, only 707, about 2%, are minority men.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed progress in diversifying Long Island's teacher workforce, but resignations and early retirements should create hiring opportunities for some school districts, education advocates said.

The latest data, from the 2020-21 school term, shows that many districts on Long Island remain predominantly served by white teachers. Minority full-time teachers are at 9.5%, while public school enrollment is now 52.8% minority.

Some educators see an increased focus on hiring minority teachers and a push for transparency in job postings. But expanding the number of minority teaching students in the pipeline remains a work in progress.

But doors soon might open wider for diverse applicants, said Lawrence Levy, who leads the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, which undertook a 2019 report that underlined how local districts were lacking in diversity.

"This is an opportunity for districts to create a more diverse teaching corps for the benefits of white and nonwhite students alike, because there are many more openings than normal due to pandemic-related retirements and resignations," said Levy, an executive dean at Hofstra.

The number of retirement applications from teachers in Nassau County jumped 29.7% — 632 to 820 — from April 2018 through August 2018 to April 2020 through August 2020, and rose 12.1% — 677 to 759 — in Suffolk County during the same periods, according to data from the New York State Teachers Retirement System. In 2021, retirement applications slowed but were still higher than pre-pandemic levels: 6.8% higher in Nassau and 11% higher in Suffolk.

"There were always going to be more retirements in this time period, as the baby boomer teachers were going to age out — and that was going to create opportunities, but now there are a lot more," said Levy, adding that diversifying staffs will require state legislation, along with more funding, teacher education, and recruitment and retention efforts.

Local educators said there has been a growing interest for diverse applicants, in part because of the Hofstra study. But initiatives to improve diversity have been limited the past couple of years because of statewide restrictions related to COVID-19.

"When the COVID virus hit, people had to reset their focus, and committees had to go remote or not meet at all, and that hampered recruitment," said Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, a group of teachers, guidance counselors and social workers. "Just as we’re on the cusp of making progress and we’re all excited thinking about doing career fairs, boom, here comes the virus. … It’s all-consuming, let me tell you."

The Hofstra report was stark: In the 2016-17 school term, nearly 45% of Long Island’s public school students were minority, yet only 8% of teachers were. The most recent state education data, from 2020-21, shows that not much has changed significantly: Public school enrollment was 52.8% minority, while full-time minority teachers were at 9.5%.

Levy called for a push to explain "to everybody, from existing teachers and PTAs and parents and influential community groups about … why it’s worth devoting the time and money" to diversify staffs.

"The payoff is students who are better prepared for a world that is going to be very different racially and ethnically from the one their parents and grandparents grew up in," he added.

Minority populations up on LI

Getting a fair shake at landing a job has been an issue for diverse candidates in the past, education advocates said, given nepotism, "word-of-mouth" and "who-you-know" hiring.

That might be changing, as the need for teachers rises and the demographics on Long Island change. According to the 2020 census, the overall minority population rose from 34.5% in 2010 to 44.2% in 2020 in Nassau, and from 28.4% to 36.6% in Suffolk.

The Hispanic population increased from 15.6% in 2010 to 20.2% in 2020. The Asian population grew from 5.4% to 7.8%, and the Black population rose from 9% to 10%.

Shawn Robertson, associate professor of child study at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue, said he sees districts becoming more transparent in their job postings.

"I can’t say it’s a huge increase, but I can say I’ve heard from [college] students that they’ve seen more postings. Before, a posting was up for a day and taken down," he said. Increasingly, Robertson said, he sees students applying and getting interviews, where in the past that might not have been the case.

Robertson added, "There are certainly some districts that are clearer than others about being intentional in making their staffs diverse. We still have a ways to go in terms of making certain that doors are wide-open for everyone of all backgrounds and types."

Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association, said groups like hers are being asked by BOCES and some districts to share job postings with their members and other minority applicants. She believes more teachers of color have been hired, though her group does not track the numbers.

"We have seen an increased interest in school districts to hire diverse teachers, but we don't know if indeed the hiring is happening," she said.

State data does show that the percentage of teachers identifying as Hispanic has outpaced the rate of increase in minority teachers overall. In 2017-18, 592 of the 35,300 full-time teachers on Long Island, or about 1.7%, identified as Hispanic. By 2020-21, the number identifying as Hispanic had risen to 1,899 out of 36,059 full-time teachers, or about 5.3%.

Many districts post job openings at centralized listing sites, such as RecruitFront.com, which advertises for K-12 districts, Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) and nonprofits in New York State, and at OLAS, a website that works with regional BOCES to centralize applications and postings. Districts also post vacancies on their websites.

But job postings may not always reflect a genuine opportunity for people not already familiar to a district, critics said. Assemb. Michaelle Solages (D-Elmont) said she's frustrated by the claim that districts cannot find minority applicants.

"I constantly hear that: ‘We can’t find qualified individuals,’ " she said. "It’s discouraging to hear that when there are a host of qualified individuals, who … are not given a fair opportunity to apply for the jobs."

Solages is the sponsor of state legislation that would require transparent job postings of openings in all districts. And, she and other members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus have called on Long Island-based institutions of higher education "to apply for and implement the Teacher Opportunity Corps II program at the soonest possible opportunity in order to expand diversity in teaching careers."

The Teacher Opportunity Corps is a state grant program meant to support a diverse enrollment for aspiring teachers. So far, SUNY Old Westbury is the only school on Long Island to participate in it, helping to support 58 education students through the program.

Diana Sukhram, dean of Old Westbury's education program, said: "We have had outreach from districts with very few or no minority teachers who have requested us to send them minority teachers."

Diana Sukhram, dean of SUNY Old Westbury's education program.

Diana Sukhram, dean of SUNY Old Westbury's education program. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

After hiring, there's retention

Once minority teachers are hired, there's a matter of retention.

"We realized you can’t just hire people who bring diversity to your workforce," said Julie Lutz, deputy superintendent for Eastern Suffolk BOCES. "You have to make sure you have a culture that is accepting and supportive of a diverse workforce. If hiring is your only focus, you are not ultimately successful. You onboard people and they don’t stay … we are seeing changes in that."

BOCES on Long Island have in recent years helped organize and coordinate districts’ cultural diversity job fairs. She said BOCES began really focusing on workforce diversity in 2018.

Lutz said BOCES works with groups such as the Latino Teachers Association and Black Educators Association, offering applicants resume and interview skill reviews. She added that in 2021, 21 of 69 districts in Suffolk participated in the diversity job fairs.

Scott, of the Black educators group, said a BOCES task force would meet this spring to assess job prospects for minorities in teaching degree programs. "Right now, there are more jobs out there," she said.

At Old Westbury, where ethnic and racial minorities make up 47% of the 730 students in the education department, Sukhram said she sees greater awareness in some districts of the need to help minority teachers succeed through professional development and "whatever it takes to get them acclimated so they can fit into that environment and be of service."

Ebony Jones, an Old Westbury graduate, is a teacher in the Bay Shore district who was hired two years ago after getting her education degree. Jones, 37, is a graduate of the district and said her 11 years there as a teaching assistant inspired her to study to become a teacher.

"I believe that in order to encourage more minorities to become teachers, they need to see that there are teachers that look like them," said Jones, who is Black. "There is a tendency to see primarily Caucasian teachers. … Before I worked in the school district, I never thought of becoming a teacher."

Jones, who teaches first grade at Mary G. Clarkson Elementary School, soon will begin an online program at SUNY Brockport to obtain a master's in education and has encouraged friends and relatives to consider a teaching career.

"When you are a minority, it's a profession that is very rewarding," she said. "It feels like you are making a difference."

First-grade teacher Ebony Jones in her classroom in Bay Shore.

First-grade teacher Ebony Jones in her classroom in Bay Shore. Credit: NDOK

Bay Shore Superintendent Steven J. Maloney said the district has diversified its staff through job fairs, networking with minority educator groups, and encouraging alumni to return to the district to work. In 2020-21, the district's enrollment was 73% nonwhite, with Hispanic students comprising 48% of the student body, while the staff was 17.5% nonwhite.

"We have seen our diversity grow over time, and we intend to see that trend continue," Maloney said.

Colleges seek growth in numbers

Expanding the number of minority students in the pipeline remains a work in progress.

Professor Alan Singer, a social studies educator in Hofstra’s education department, said minority teaching students "are a minority in our program. I wish there were more."

Minority enrollment rose to 25% in 2021, from 18% in 2018, according to Hofstra's figures.

Singer said he works with the New Opportunities at Hofstra (NOAH) program, which helps support students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds to attend the university, and reaches out to his network of alumni to get the word out about the education program. He cites a need for greater state and federal investment in teacher scholarships.

At Adelphi University, 24% of 533 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in teacher education degree programs this school term are students of color, spokeswoman Taylor Damian said.

"As an institution, in all of our programs, education included, Adelphi is looking to boost the recruitment and retention of diverse populations," Damian said.

At Molloy College, white students make up 72% of the school's education enrollment of 280 undergraduates, 161 graduate students and 96 doctoral candidates. That percentage has been relatively stable for the last decade, said Ken Young, spokesperson for Molloy. He noted that the school's education doctoral program "is focused on Leadership for Diverse Learning Communities," and that close to half its students are minorities.

The pandemic stalled efforts by Molloy to expand the kind of partnership it has with the Baldwin district, said Linda Kraemer, Molloy’s associate dean and director of undergraduate education programs. Baldwin created what it calls Academies, to expose its students to professional studies.

In its four-year-old Education Academy, ninth-graders begin taking college-level courses so they can enter Molloy's education program as sophomores, then student-teach in Baldwin. The first of more than 100 participants graduate from high school this school term.

Baldwin Superintendent Shari Camhi — president-elect of a national school superintendents association — said she hopes participants eventually will return to teach in the district.

"It's a 'grow-your-own' program," she said. "We've only seen the number of students interested in the program go up."

The district also reached out to historically Black colleges and universities for teacher applicants and participated in Western Suffolk BOCES' "teacher diversity pipeline program" to help teacher aides and assistants get teaching degrees, Camhi said.

As for Molloy, Kraemer is planning open houses and a summer Future Teacher Boot Camp.

"We’re back in action finally," she said. "It’s hard to get students excited on a video chat. It’s not the same as that face-to-face interaction."

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