Few Black teachers in county, but they make a difference
WASHINGTON, PA (AP) — “I always enjoyed school, and I enjoyed learning. I knew early on that academics was more of my route, and I was fortunate to have a family that encouraged me,” said Treg Campbell, an English teacher at Washington High School.
Campbell’s passion for learning was also nurtured by his teachers.
But when he got into high school, it struck Campbell, who is Black, that other than his elementary and middle school gym teachers, he hadn’t been taught by a person of color throughout his academic career in the Washington School District, where minority students make up nearly 50% of the student body.
“High school was a reality check. I looked around and realized in 10th grade that my world history teacher was the first teacher of color I had in a core class,” he said.
After he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, Campbell, 33, returned to his alma mater, where he has spent the last 11 years sharing his love for literature and serving as a role model for his students – especially students of color.
“I aspire to be a role model for all of my students, but especially for my minority students, because I know how difficult it can be to be a Black male in this country,” said Campbell. “What upsets me is the low expectations people have for African American children. I want to open their eyes to the fact that there is more for them in life than what the world dictates for them. There are Black doctors and Black scientists and Black lawyers, and I want them to know that. It’s important for them to see successful people of color because it works against those stereotypes of people of color that persist.”
Not many teachers in Pennsylvania can relate to students the way Campbell does.
While Pennsylvania schools are more diverse than ever, the overwhelming majority of public school teachers are white.
According to the state Department of Education, less than 5% of Pennsylvania teachers are people of color, compared with more than 33% of its students – among the widest gaps in the United States. Only 1% of teachers are Black men.
Increasingly, minority students spend their entire school day without encountering a teacher of color.
But studies show teachers of color can have a crucial impact on minority students.
According to the Center for Black Educator Development in Philadelphia, Black students who have just one Black teacher in elementary school are more likely to graduate and more likely to enroll in college.
There are other benefits: better attendance, fewer suspensions, and higher test scores.
In Washington School District, seven of 126 teachers are Black. In the 18 other school districts in Washington and Greene counties, there are a total of four Black educators, according to the most recent data released by the PDE.
Chet Henderson, principal at Washington High School, taught history and coached football before he became an administrator.
Henderson, who attended elementary school in Los Angeles until the age of 10 before his parents, both Wash High graduates, returned to Washington, said it’s valuable for children of color to have teachers who match their race.
“There is an importance and a need for a diverse teacher population that reflects the students they serve. It allows students to see themselves in you as an educator, and it provides an opportunity for connection and sense of belonging,” said Henderson. “It helps students to feel more welcome when they have folks around them that look like them.”
Dr. Rueben Brock, a professor at California University of Pennsylvania and Wash High graduate, noted that Black teachers are often the first Black professional that minority students encounter.
“When you see a Black teacher with a tie and a button-down shirt, it gives you an image that a lot of Black kids don’t see at home, especially in lower socioeconomic families. It gives you an idea about what is possible for you,” he said.
It’s also important, though, for white students to be taught by people of color.
Dennis “Buzz” Scott, who taught at Peters Township for more than three decades before he retired, said Black educators can use their cultural and life experiences to offer a different perspective on issues.
“Peters Township is predominantly white, and for most of my teaching career, I was the only gas station in town,” said Scott, laughing. “I taught American government, and I was able to share the perspective of a Black American. My students got to hear about my experiences of what it was like not being able to vote. I remember the Civil Rights protests and Vietnam, and it was a point of view they hadn’t heard before,” he said.
Campbell, too, shares stories with his students about his grandmother, born in 1923, who was allowed to roller skate in Washington only on Thursday nights, the night reserved for Black children. And he tells them how his father, who served in Vietnam, had to wait for white soldiers to bring him food when they crossed state lines because he wasn’t allowed in the restaurants.
“Black teachers can bring a wealth of cultural experience that’s beneficial to Black and white students,” said Campbell, who has incorporated multicultural literature into the curriculum.
Having a Black teacher is also an important way to battle systemic racism, said Dr. Kenith Britt, a Trinity High School graduate who attended Washington School District and now serves as vice president of Marian University’s Klipsch Educators College in Indianapolis, which aims to help talented students of color to become teachers.
“Systemic racism in our country can and should end. One way that can have a dramatic long-term impact is ensuring that white students have Black teachers, counselors and school leaders. White students need to see people of color in leadership positions and positions of authority in school over longer periods of time,” said Britt, who is white.
Brandon Robinson is the middle school/high school principal and assistant superintendent at Jefferson-Morgan School District in Greene County.
The district currently has no teachers of color, while 3% of the student body is Black.
Robinson believes it’s important for school districts to recruit more minority teachers.
“We all have to do a better job of steering minorities into the field. We rarely have minority candidates apply for teaching positions,” said Robinson. “With the small population of minority students in Greene County, it’s important to see someone of color in their school. And for white students, it’s an opportunity to get to know and to accept people who aren’t like you.”
Throughout his career in education, Robinson has encountered few colleagues of color.
He graduated from Waynesburg University, where he was the only Black person enrolled in the education program.
In the five years he spent in the classroom — at Jefferson-Morgan and Trinity Area School District — before he became an administrator, he didn’t teach with another Black educator. And, for many of his students, Robinson was the first African-American educator who taught them.