When Edgar Ríos was one of 126 students in the first class of a new charter school in Chicago in 1999, almost all of his teachers were white.
They were good teachers, he says. His favorite, though, was a teacher “who could speak Spanish with my mother and father, so I didn’t have to translate.”
Fast-forward 17 years. Now, Ríos is working for the 12,000-student Noble Network of Charter Schools as its diversity recruiter, trying to increase the number of minority teachers on the network’s payroll.
He has few counterparts, he said, even though his challenge represents a hugely important front in the battle for racial equity in education.
Only about 264,000 of the nearly 3.4 million teachers in the country are Latino. They represent 8 percent of teachers, while 22 percent of students are Latino, said María Peña, Washington, D.C., correspondent for La Opinión/Impremedia.
“Who is at the front of the classrooms teaching our students? They serve as role models,” said Peña, who moderated a panel on the scarcity of Latino teachers at EWA’s third annual Spanish-language media convening earlier this month in D.C.
The vast majority of Latino teachers are concentrated in a few states — California, Texas, New Mexico, New York, Massachusetts and Illinois, according to Mario Cardona, senior policy adviser for K-12 education at the White House Domestic Policy Council.
“In other states, they simply are not hiring Latino teachers,” Cardona said.
A major part of the problem is that while Latinos are going to college more frequently than in the past, they are graduating at a lower rate than white students and Asians, Cardona said. Even when they pursue education as a major, he said, they are not becoming teachers at the same rate as white college graduates.
The dearth of Latino teachers has a direct impact on students.
“Teachers of color are more likely to have higher expectations of students of color,” Cardona said.
In addition to being able to communicate with families, Ríos said, Latino teachers and administrators can better understand the barriers that Noble’s students face.
He said Latino teachers at Noble fought to find more resources for undocumented students. A scholarship program in partnership with colleges guarantees that undocumented graduates pay just $2,000 a year for college.
Another panelist at the EWA seminar with a deeply compelling personal story was Viridiana Carrizales. She moved to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant at age 11 and now is working for the Teach for America program, aiding more than 100 TFA members with DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) status.
It’s significant when teachers are able to tell students, “I also was undocumented, so I know what you’re going through,” said Carrizales, a native of the Mexican state of Michoacán who is TFA’s director of DACA corps member support.
At Noble, there is a residency program for aspiring teachers that’s geared toward former graduates of the charter network’s schools.
“We are using this program as a way to help us create a more diverse group of teachers,” Ríos said. “This gives our graduates a chance to return to and serve the communities where they grew up.”
Institutions of higher education that focus on serving Latinos must play a central role in increasing diversity among teachers, said Andrés Castro Samayoa, the assistant director of evaluation at the Center for Minority-Serving Institutions at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. He said nearly half of the Latino teachers in the country come from institutions that identify as Hispanic-serving, a designation given to campuses where more than 25 percent of full-time students are Hispanic.
Carrizales believes there are qualified Latinos who are simply not being offered jobs.
“The teachers are here,” she said. “They just need a chance.”
Peña agreed, saying she knew of people who are qualified to teach — but they are working in hotels.