Addison is black, and at School 22, where he teaches fourth grade, so are 39 percent of the students. Another 56 percent are Latino. He does not need to consult the extensive body of research that shows students of color benefit in ways big and small from having teachers who look like them. Addison can see it.
The signs are sometimes subtle, but they’re there. Like that one hot day in spring when he had a washcloth hanging out of his back pocket. A few weeks later, the boys in his class had washcloths of their own hanging from their back pockets.
“That's why I take my job very seriously,” Addison said. “They're looking at me, they're watching me, and in this case, being a black male educator, it definitely is a major benefit in terms of how you're reaching these kids and understanding them and realizing that I was once one of those students in one of those chairs.”
The future of that dynamic for Addison and many other black teachers now rests in the hands of the Board of Education, which is expected to vote Thursday on a plan to layoff some 218 Rochester City School District employees. Among them are 152 teachers, including, according to the Rochester Teachers Association, 21 black teachers.
Teachers, staff, parents, and union officials have mobilized to stop the proposed layoffs and to urge district officials to find alternatives. They argue that cutting teachers mid-year is disruptive, and that any cuts could hurt the quality of education students receive.
But the loss of black and Latino teachers in RCSD classrooms would carry extra weight and undermine efforts in recent years to diversify teacher ranks. Already, the district’s teacher corps is far from representative of the district’s population.
While roughly 55 percent of the district’s 26,000 students are black, and 31 percent are Latino, just 13 percent of the district’s 3,500 teachers are black, and only 7.5 percent are Latino, according to data from the Rochester Teachers Association. The district declined to corroborate the demographic breakdown, but the union’s data aligns with figures reported in recent years.
But School Board member Judith Davis said the layoffs of any teachers of color undermine the effort of the district in recent years to boost the number of black and Latino teachers.
The layoffs will reverberate in schoolhouses throughout the system. In most Rochester public schools, teachers of color number from the single digits to the teens. While the district isn’t laying off a disproportionate number of teachers of color, even one teacher of color being cut can have a disproportionate effect on a school.
That’s not to say that white teachers can’t teach students of color. They do, and many do it well. But study after study has shown that black and Latino students benefit from having teachers who look like them, from performing better on reading and math exams to being more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in a post-secondary school program.
"There’s benefits to having teachers of color in the classroom,” Davis said.
The researchers found that exposing black students in grades 3 through 5 to just one black teacher “increases the likelihood that persistently low-income students of both sexes aspire to attend a four-year college.”
Addison recalled that at the beginning of one school year, many of his students said they wanted to be athletes, entertainers, or social media personalities. But by the middle of the year, many said that they wanted to be teachers.
By taking “teachers that look like them away, you’re really taking away the positive influence that they should have,” Addison said.
Several studies and policy briefs also found that teachers of color tend to have higher expectations for students of color, that they work with students to help them meet those expectations, and that they are more likely to assign students of color to gifted and talented programs.
Addison said he’s had poorly behaved students come into his class and become some of the best behaved students in the school. He attributes the change to what he teaches the children and how they respond to him.
“They look at you in a different way,” Addison said. “They don’t look at you as a foreigner, they don’t look at you as someone who’s an outsider. They look to you as someone that they can relate to more.”
As for preventing teachers of color from being laid off, district officials may not have much leeway, unless they scrap the layoffs in whole or in part. State laws require the district to make layoffs on a last hired, first fired basis, which protects senior teachers but gives officials less discretion around who can be laid off.
Davis said she wants the state to change those laws, they can create a barrier to retaining newer teachers of color. In the Rochester district, some of those teachers were hired to fill openings left when the district offered retirement incentives last year.
“We must plug the leak through which the very educators we just hired in order to diversify our staff are being displaced or removed,” Davis said.
Addison has been on paternity leave for the past few weeks, but after receiving his layoff notice he planned to tell his 28 students that he might not be coming back. Throughout his leave, he’s stopped in to check in on his students and each time they tell him they miss him.
He was dreading the talk.
“Luckily, I teach resilience,” Addison said.
Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.