For the next five years, the state is in charge of the Providence School District and one of the most significant challenges it will face is diversifying the teacher workforce. 

Most of the teachers are white, and most of the students are students of color. For decades, no one has come up with a way to fix this issue. Will this new effort, under new leadership, be any different?

When State Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green moved from New York City to Rhode Island last year to lead the state takeover of the schools, she quickly found herself the sole person of color in meetings.

“It was a very strange feeling coming from New York, to be the only one in the room all the time,” Infante-Green told a room full of teachers of color during a meeting late this year. “Not what I’m used to. I’m usually one of many. It was an uncomfortable situation for me.”

Infante-Green, who is Latina, convened the gathering to begin a conversation about increasing diversity in the schools.

Most of the teachers in the room described work and education environments where they felt stymied, harassed or ostracized because of their race and the ways in which they worked with their students. They talked about systemic racism, and Infante-Green said she’s already had some difficult conversations with school leaders.

“I’m not going to tolerate racism,” Infante-Green said. “I’m not going to tolerate any of the nonsense that we’ve had. We are changing. Our school systems are not going to get better if we don’t diversify and support one another. That’s just not going to change. Because let me tell you, kids know.”

Infante-Green knows firsthand how important diversity in education is, and says she is eager to see educator demographics shift. But teachers at the meeting told the commissioner that similar efforts have fizzled. The teachers’ concerns highlight an issue Infante-Green says she has confronted in her short tenure in Rhode Island: inertia.

In Providence, about 90 percent of the students are black and Hispanic. About 80 percent of the teaching staff is white. Those percentages haven’t changed in a decade.

Academics trace the nationwide lack of diversity in education back to the 1950s. After the federal desegregation of schools, teachers of color were pushed out when schools closed or merged.

“We're talking about discriminatory practices that kept them out of jobs, not just black teachers, but also black principals, too,” said Jeannine Dingus-Eason, dean at the Rhode Island College school of education.

Now, decades later, she says modern school systems continue to feel the ramifications of these practices.

“Generations of children of color, black kids in particular, did not have teachers in front of them that looked like them. And they didn't have the benefit of having those teachers there.”

The research is clear. Students of color who have teachers that look like them and share cultural backgrounds are more likely to do better in school.

Yet the issue persists. Researchers say the reasons for it are complicated: students of color aren’t going into the profession, those that do are often derailed in the preparation and hiring process, and the teachers of color who do end up in school leave quickly, feeling unsupported and isolated.

So, what will it take to fix this? That’s a question the teachers’ union is also asking. The union acknowledges the problem, but some teachers are wary. A dramatic shift towards parity between the demographics of students and teachers would have a big impact on the union’s mostly white rank-and-file members. 

In the short term, Providence Teachers Union president Maribeth Calabro is focused on providing her membership with training on things like racial bias.

“I think we need to strike a balance between those teachers that we have that are not of color, developing and building relationships with those students, our students and getting more people of color,” Calabro said. “So if we have a better balance, a decent balance of those things. And we, you know, talking about race and bias and getting down to those difficult conversations. Once we have that, I think we will be in a much better position than we are currently.”

But it’s also an issue that is likely to surface at the bargaining table. State education commissioner Infante-Green says at the very least there will need to be changes in the district’s criterion-based hiring practices known as the CBA.

“We cannot have the same policies in place, we cannot have the same barriers,” Infante-Green said during an interview. “I think the union is aware that they are going to have to be changes. And part of what is in CBA causes some of the issues that we have right now. So we have to be very careful as we move forward. I think the union is aware of that.”

The union has said it had little control in crafting current hiring practices created in previous negotiations. The state and the union are expected to head back to the bargaining table this year. And it’s not just a union issue.

“There will be things that we will be putting in place that will be thorny, that will be difficult,” Infante-Green said. “And we need to have different types of representation as we get the teachers throughout the school building. And I have to tell you, when we have this conversation, people get very uncomfortable.”

Infante-Greene is involving community groups in the discussion and a legislative committee is reviewing the problem with recommendations expected this spring. 

But solutions won’t be quick or easy and it’s not just a Providence problem: A Brookings institute report from 2016 found that nationally, 1-million white teachers would need to be replaced by black and Hispanic teachers just to reach parity in the U.S. Everyone agrees that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.