HEMPSTEAD, NY.- The percentage of minority public school teachers on Long Island in 2017 was less than half that of the national average, according to a study released by Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies last March. The study looked at data from the New York State Education Department.
According to the National Center for Education about 20 percent of teachers in the country were minorities in 2016. However, according to the Hofstra University study, only eight percent of Long Island teachers in 2017 were nonwhite.
Experts interviewed for this story said that historical housing discrimination and an inability to recruit and retain minority teachers are both contributing factors.
Nyah Berg, an education equity organizer at ERASE Racism New York, said that inequities on Long Island are multifaceted and complex. For example, Long Island has 125 school districts. Berg said that this fragmentation keeps segregation in place. In contrast, schools in other states are divided by county, making it easier to spread resources more equitably, agreed William Mangino, a Hofstra sociology professor and a coauthor of the study. On Long Island one school system “might be impoverished and starving for resources, right next to the richest school district.”
Amy Stuart Wells, a sociology and education professor at Columbia University, said that Long Island school administrators aren’t diverse either. “Even when demographics are changing in some of these districts, you still have a lot of white people in of charge of the schools.”
Dafny Irizarry, president of the Long Island Latino Teachers Association, teaches in the Central Islip school district, and said she has seen discrepancies in teacher diversity between different districts. Irizarry’s son, who attends high school in East Islip, has never been taught be a teacher of color. “He doesn’t know what it is to see on a regular basis… a black teacher, in his school.” According to U.S. Census data, 94 percent of the East Islip population is white.
This is in marked contrast to Central Islip, where 61 percent of teachers were white in 2016-2017, while 36 percent were black or Latino, according to data from Newsday.
Housing discrimination also contributes to the problem. After World War II, some Long Island municipalities had racial covenants preventing homeowners from selling, renting or leasing property to people of color, said Nyah Berg. She added that the Federal Housing Administration began redlining, or drawing district maps based on race, and preventing people of color from obtaining mortgage loans. “Those residential segregation boundaries that were created at that time became the boundaries we see today for schools.”
Constance Lindsay, a K-12 education research associate at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit organization that studies economic and social policy, pointed to another problem: there aren’t enough minority teacher candidates. “We just don’t have the numbers of high school graduates and college graduates of color that we’d like to see.”
Also, minority teachers who work in suburban schools don’t always feel welcome. “They leave, because there’s no connection,” said Irizarry.
Lisette Partelow, the senior director of K-12 strategic initiatives at the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan progressive policy institute, added that districts need to do more to recruit minorities. “Districts are kind of waiting for teachers to come to them.”
New York State Senator Monica Martinez, a Democrat representing District Three, which includes Brookhaven, Central Islip and Ronkonkoma, spent 14 years in the Brentwood school district as a teacher and assistant principal. She said schools need to do a better job of supporting minorities. While she was “fortunate to develop a good mentorship network that guided and assisted me,” Martinez said via email, other minorities often don’t have access to similar programs.
Partelow added that for students of color, having a minority teacher impacts their earning potential later in life.
“The demographics of this country have shifted, said Wells. “What does that mean for the field of education? You’re not just going to bring in a black teacher to solve everything.”