Research has shown that in increasingly diverse school systems, students of color do better when their teachers look like them and share their cultural backgrounds. In Providence, about 90 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, but about 80 percent of the teaching staff is white. These percentages have remained essentially unchanged for at least a decade.

Teacher diversity looms as one of the biggest, perhaps most intractable challenges facing the state in its takeover of the troubled district. Rahsaan Gomes-McCreary is one of just a handful of black teachers at the vocational high school in Providence.

Today, her sophomores are learning a new kind of haircut. As they work individually on mannequins with long brown hair, Gomes-McCreary gently but firmly fixes their technique.

“Open the shear up, with the belly and go for it,” Gomes-McCreary tells a student. “Don’t be scared. This is your safe space, right? So let’s learn.”

Over a decade in Providence, Gomes-McCreary has worked to cultivate a classroom where her students feel comfortable and trust her.

“This is not a classroom with students and teachers, it’s more inclusive. It’s like we’re all a family,” one student said.

Gomes-McCreary’s students are virtually all black and Hispanic girls. For many, she is the first teacher of color they’ve ever had in their decade of schooling.  

Across Rhode Island, just about two percent of the state’s educators identify as black, and four percent identify as Hispanic. But research has linked better student academic performance with having teachers that have similar racial and cultural backgrounds.

Students in Gomes-McCreary’s class feel comfortable trying, failing, and trying again to learn new skills and concepts. That level of comfort was something Gomes McCreary said she never really felt growing up in Providence, bouncing between public, charter and private schools.

“Through the years you feel uncomfortable because of your skin color, you feel uncomfortable because of your looks,” Gomes-McCreary said. “You feel uncomfortable because you’re the only black person, or person of color. You feel uncomfortable because you’re getting bussed in. Everybody else is walking to school. You feel uncomfortable because you have to get free lunch.”

When researchers with Johns Hopkins University visited Providence schools last year, they found a lack of diversity among teachers a major concern, but one that was ignored or actively avoided by education leaders. That report was part of what pushed the state to take the schools over this fall. And the State education department says it is taking a more active role in addressing the issue.

Gomes-McCreary was one of about 50 educators of color from across Rhode Island who discussed this issue with state education commissioner Angelica Infante-Green during a meeting late this year.

“You have to cross your t’s and dot your I’s because you are Latina, or because you are of color, and your administrator is not, and they have a different perspective and view of how they want their school to look,” one teacher said. 

(We are not including the names of the teachers who spoke at the meeting, who wished to speak freely without fear of professional repercussions.) 

The teachers talked for hours. Some said that they are not respected for the ways in which they are able to connect with their students. Or that their approach to teaching isn’t valued. They talked about racism, harassment and being stymied by administrators and fellow educators in their approach to teaching.

“Don’t minimize our own experience as people of color in getting into the classroom. I think we’ve been sold this idea that what we do and how we do it is not the right way,” another teacher said.

The concerns they raised have dogged the profession for years. Odell Zeigler is a music teacher at Mount Pleasant High School. Cleaning out his classroom last year he discovered a letter dated 1992 from the former superintendent Arthur Zarrella.

The letter reads, in part:

“I am aware of and concerned about the increasing number of reports I have heard regarding racial insults levelled at students, by other students and by adults. This situation will not be tolerated in Providence public schools, and all adults and authority positions have a legal and/or moral obligation to stop this activity.”

Zeigler said he was stunned.

“I read this, I said, ‘Whoa, they were dealing with this back in 1992.’ We're still dealing with this now.”

Zeigler said he has been subject of racially insensitive comments in the school system. And brought up the letter during the meeting with Infante-Green because he’s worried the state won’t be able to do anything to address current problems, which contribute to the lack of diversity in the teaching staff.

“I wanted the Commissioner to get an understanding that we have to move beyond letters and statements,” Zeigler said. “I'm sick of talking about systematic racism ratio. I'm sick of talking about it. What can we do about it?”

Providence is not alone here. Lack of teacher diversity is a national problem, and Infante-Green has been very vocal about her concerns in Rhode Island. She says addressing the issue is a top priority for her administration.

“We have a broken system,” Infante-Green said during an interview. “I think we have to do a better job. Will it take time? Yes. And I think it is something that we have to really work at.”

However, the commissioner has not yet announced any new policies. 

In our second part we will look at the reasons for the lack of teacher diversity, grassroots efforts to deal with the problem, and why the issue is so hard to rectify.