When Jonathan Williams walks through the doors of his old elementary school, he says the students know his name.
They look up to him — not just because he was the captain of the Sparta Bulldogs football and basketball teams but because the high school senior comes to their classrooms every day to help them with their homework and talk to them about what’s going on at home.
And for some children, Jonathan is one of the few role models they have in school who looks like them.
State data shows that one out of four students in Sparta’s school district are black, Hispanic or biracial (25.6 percent). But their teachers are mostly white (95.4 percent), which is a trend in the workforce locally and nationally.
Across the metro-east, there are five times as many black students (18.4 percent) as there are black teachers (3.4 percent), according to 2017 data, the most recent from the state.
Students in three out of 10 public school districts in the area see only white teachers in their classrooms. None of the schools teach only white children.
Educators say it’s important to have diversity in the workforce because teachers of color give their students of color a positive example to follow, and a person in whom they can confide, or from whom they can seek advice. For other students, those teachers help kids understand the experiences of people who are different from them.
Sparta District 140 officials are hoping to change their disparity through the school activity that brings Jonathan — and 23 other teenagers — to the elementary school on a daily basis: senior internships.
They leave their high school in Randolph County for an hour to do the work of a teacher’s aide at Sparta Lincoln School, less than half a mile away.
The goal is to get kids interested in teaching right before they go to college, so they’ll think about studying education and coming home to work as teachers.
Jonathan said he’s considering it.
“Hopefully I could maybe come back and teach in Sparta because, around here, we’ve got about three black teachers, maybe, in high school, middle school and primary,” he said.
Sparta District 140 Superintendent Gabe Schwemmer said the district has one teacher who is black and two teachers who identify as biracial.
Tanya Martin, a parent who lives in Belleville, thinks that when students of color see diversity among their teachers and school leaders, it helps them picture themselves in those positions, too.
She said that could be why her daughter thought about becoming a math teacher after seeing a black woman teach math in her third-grade classroom.
Martin’s other two children have never had a black teacher, she said. They are in first and fifth grades.
Ed Hightower was Edwardsville District 7’s first black superintendent in 1996. He worked in the position for 19 years before he retired. Hightower said it was a priority for the district to have a staff as diverse as the students.
People of the same race or ethnicity have shared experiences and understanding, according to Hightower.
“It’s the same thing when you have a problem in a school district, and you know that there is, say, that African-American counselor who can, for whatever reason, identity with the issues you’re having,” Hightower said. “You’re going to feel more comfortable going and talking with that individual about the issues that you’re facing.
“It gives you the confidence to open up and say, ‘I’ve got a problem. I need help,’” he added. “That is why it is so critical.”
In Sparta, Jonathan said he talks to a teacher’s aide who coaches at his school. The 17-year-old said the coach, who is black, “knows what we have to go through.”
Now, he tries to be there for students, too, including a fifth-grader who reminds Jonathan of himself.
“I start talking to him like, ‘Hey, man, let’s just get this work done and you could be something in life,’ and now the teacher, Mrs. (Susan) Polino, she told me he’s doing his work,” Jonathan said. “He wrote this note to her to say that he’s sorry for not bringing in his homework because he said he left his homework at his babysitter’s house. And that sounds like something I would say when I was his age.
“He’s a really smart guy, and I see a lot of potential in him,” Jonathan added. “But there’s more kids around here I’m seeing potential in every day that I didn’t think I would see potential in.”
Jim Rosborg, a retired Belleville District 118 superintendent, said teachers from a variety of backgrounds also help prepare kids for a diverse society.
“A good education is not only teaching us the basic skills, it’s also teaching us how to interact with other people of all races,” he said.
What schools are doing
Several school officials in the metro-east said they try to recruit teachers of color from universities and job fairs.
Like Sparta, they try to inspire students to pursue teaching, or they encourage teacher’s aides and substitute teachers to go back to school to become teachers.
They post vacancies on social media and on websites. Columbia District 4, for instance, uses the Illinois Education Job Bank site, hoping to reach people from different backgrounds online, according to Superintendent Gina Segobiano. Columbia schools have only white teachers.
But some officials said there aren’t as many college students graduating with education degrees as there used to be.
Statewide, there were almost half as many graduates in 2016 as there were in 2010, which is when Illinois saw the most students studying education in the past 20 years.
Black students make up about 10 percent of the graduates from Illinois’ education programs, or an average of 1,400 prospective teachers each year.
Locally, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville also saw a decrease in the amount of students with education degrees after 2010. But the number of black students pursuing those degrees increased from less than 50 in 2010 to almost 100 last year, according to university data.
SIUE spokesman Doug McIlhagga said, in recent years, the campus has seen “record levels” of students enrolled who are black or Hispanic.
The school districts with the most black and Hispanic teachers looked outside of the St. Louis region, in some cases, to find them, according to officials.
East St. Louis District 189 staff have traveled to three historically black colleges and universities in Atlanta to reach black men studying to become teachers, according to district spokeswoman Sydney Stigge-Kaufman.
Collinsville Unit 10 spokeswoman Kim Collins said staff there went to Chicago to recruit Spanish-speaking teachers to work with the district’s large population of Hispanic students.
District 189 and nearby Madison Unit 12 also find applicants by running their own job fairs, according to officials.
Cahokia District 187 created a new position this school year to help it recruit more black teachers.
About 13 percent of the teachers in Cahokia schools are black, while nearly 89 percent of their students are black.
“We are still working on our recruitment of African-American teachers, but we have not had great luck,” said Art Ryan, the District 187 superintendent.
Leaders in Granite City District 9 and Shiloh District 85, which have only white teachers, said their districts have diversity outside of the classrooms.
Superintendent Jim Greenwald said District 9 has several coaches who are black. One of them works for the district as a teacher’s aide, too.
One of the elementary schools in Granite City also has a long-term substitute, who is black, filling in as principal this year, according to Greenwald.
Shiloh’s two schools have one principal who is black and one who is white. District 85 also employs staff members from different backgrounds, according to Superintendent Dale Sauer.
Some school officials said they’ve lost potential teachers of color to districts that can pay more.
The average starting salary for a new teacher in the metro-east is about $37,500, according to state data. The top-paying districts include Roxana 1, Cahokia 187, Brooklyn 188, O’Fallon 203 and East St. Louis 189, which pay between $9,400 and $5,200 more than that.
“We can’t compete salary-wise,” said Kevin Cogdill, superintendent of Marissa District 40, which has only white teachers. Cogdill said the district recently lost a principal, who was biracial, to another job.
Superintendent Jeff Dosier said he asks leaders of color in the community for advice about how Belleville District 201 can improve, and that includes conversations about how it can recruit more black teachers.
Almost 40 percent of the students in Belleville East and West high schools are black, and 1.1 percent of the district’s teachers are black.
District 201 is considering candidates now for the positions that will be open after retirements at the end of the school year, according to Dosier. He said some of the applicants are black teachers.
Among the district’s leaders, Dosier said five of the 20 administrators are black and that those leaders of color work in the schools with students.
One of the community leaders Dosier said he reaches out to for guidance is Hightower, who stays active in Madison County through his role as executive director at the Mannie Jackson Center for the Humanities.
Hightower said his advice to school officials is to get the community involved.
“You want to make sure that individuals whom you attract feel comfortable coming into your community, and you want to make sure that there’s that investment in them,” he said. “And that investment is reciprocal, where they want to stay there.”
They’ll feel comfortable, he said, when they see diversity in the police force, among the firefighters and families, as well as in the school district.
In Hightower’s experience, mentoring and internship opportunities for potential teachers and administrators also helped District 7 attract people to Edwardsville when he was superintendent.
Lynda Andre, who replaced Hightower as superintendent, said those programs still exist in District 7.
She said the district will work with citizen groups and alumni, as well as major education programs in the Midwest, when there are vacancies. It also posts them on the Illinois Education Job Bank site that’s used by people across the state.
What the state is doing
Rosborg, the retired Belleville superintendent, thinks the number of graduates dropped after 2010 because that’s when the state made changes to the test that college students are required to take before they can become teachers.
He works at McKendree University in Lebanon as the director of the master’s of education program today.
Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said in an email that the 2010 changes were made “in collaboration with stakeholders.”
“ISBE is continuously updating educator standards, policies and practices to ensure all Illinois students are supported by highly prepared and effective teachers and school leaders,” she said.
Rosborg said the state has made changes since 2010 that are helping future teachers: if students fail the test, they can retake it as many times as they need to, and they can choose to take the SAT or the ACT with a writing portion as an alternative.
But Rosborg said Illinois is still weeding out qualified candidates with expectations he thinks are too high.
Prospective teachers have to pass all of the test’s sections: reading comprehension, language arts, writing and math.
Of the 192 people who took the test last month, Rosborg said 81 percent didn’t pass.
It costs them $113, according to the Illinois Licensure Testing System. If they’re retaking one section, it’s $68. They have to wait about a month before they can take the test or one of its sections again.
“You have to pass the math even though you’re a language arts teacher,” Rosborg said. “You have to pass the language arts even though you’re a math teacher. We are losing outstanding people in the field because of the way we’ve got this test set up.”
Illinois will be taking a look at its state policies over the next year.
It’s one of nine states participating in a new initiative, the goal of which is to address the challenges they face in increasing diversity in the education workforce and preparing educators to teach students of different backgrounds.
What Illinois wants to accomplish is “changing the narrative around teaching” and the way teachers are recruited, prepared and encouraged to stay, State Superintendent Tony Smith stated in a news release.
The “Diverse and Learner-Ready Teachers Initiative” was started by the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit made up of education officials. Smith is on the board of directors.
Martin, the parent in Belleville, said her daughter is in eighth grade now and is still thinking about whether she wants to become a teacher.
Martin also works as a public school teacher. She said she talks to her daughter about the profession and the ways it’s changed, which for Martin includes more scrutiny for teachers as she sees some students and parents taking less responsibility for their education. “Everything is on us,” she said.
She enjoys coming to work, though, because of the students, Martin said.
“I feel like I’m needed,” she said.
In Fairview Heights, Grant District 110 Superintendent Matt Stines said he’s involved in a state organization for educators that has asked legislators for changes to the process to become a teacher in Illinois. He’s a member of the Illinois Association of School Administrators.
“Kids go out of state to get certified, and then they don’t come back. ... We’ve shot ourselves in the foot on some of that,” Stines said.
Gov. Bruce Rauner recently signed a new law that is expected to make it easier for out-of-state teachers to get licensed in Illinois.
Dosier, of Belleville District 201, said the law cuts down on the cost and time it takes for them to teach in Illinois classrooms.
“We had a candidate who had a master’s degree and a specialist degree and probably 10 years of experience,” before the law changed the process, Dosier said. “They were told that they would have to take additional coursework and pass two additional assessments.”
About 35,000 Illinois students left the state for college in fall 2016, according to the most recent enrollment data available.
School leaders note that the metro-east is also home to people from other states because Scott Air Force Base draws military families.
“Twenty some years ago, military-connected spouses from Scott Air Force Base contributed to the pool of qualified, experienced applicants, a number of whom were people of color,” said Peggy Burke, superintendent in Belleville’s Whiteside District 115.
Before the governor approved the bill to streamline the process, Burke added, “for many military spouses, if they do not anticipate being in Illinois for a substantial length of time, it’s not worth the time and expense for them to get licensed in Illinois.”
Under the new law, teachers can become licensed in Illinois if they show that they completed a comparable, state-approved educator prep program or that they have a valid license with similar grade and subject credentials from another state, according to Rauner’s office.
Matthews, the state board spokeswoman, said Illinois has been studying issues in the teacher workforce all year, including diversity and licensure.
The state’s particpation in the Diverse and Learner-Ready Teachers Initiative is part of that effort, according to Matthews.
She said there will be a report for Illinois State Board of Education members and other state policymakers to consider by September.