New citywide campaign tries to attract minority educators to Denver

A joint effort introduced Friday involving Denver Public Schools, the mayor’s office, charter school operators and others aims to sell the city to minority educators, part of a push to build a more diverse workforce that better reflects the student population.

The two-year campaign is called Make Your Mark Denver. It pitches prospective teachers and principals on the opportunity to make a difference in narrowing the district’s race- and income-based achievement gaps while living in a growing city that’s become a magnet for millennials.

The collaborative effort has several pieces, including a recruitment showcase underway this weekend and a mentoring program, both building on DPS efforts begun last year. The goal is to recruit more than 70 “exceptional” teachers of color and 10 principals or school leaders of color, district officials said.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and DPS Acting Superintendent Susana Cordova, both products of DPS schools, spoke Friday to 15 top minority teaching candidates, with the media invited. The prospective hires are in town for DPS’s second Mile High Showcase, a three-day whirlwind including school visits, a job fair, a Nuggets basketball game and dinner at a Mexican restaurant.

Speaking from experience

Cordova told the candidates that as a city with an African-American mayor and a Latina superintendent of schools, Denver is “ready for change.” Cordova said that in all her time as a DPS student, she only knew three teachers of color and was only ever taught by one of them.

“Not only did that create for me some real dissonance in terms of what did it mean to grow up as Latina in the city and never see anyone who looked like me, it created a lot of work I needed to go through in terms of what is my pathway forward,” she said.

Hancock focused on selling Denver, calling it “the new hip city that people want to live in.” He highlighted the ways in which the city supports the schools, including the Denver Preschool Program, a tax approved by Denver voters that provides tuition assistance to 4-year-olds.

Last year, 18 candidates took part in the district’s minority recruitment showcase and 14 landed jobs in DPS, said Cindy Eisenberg, the district’s senior manager of teacher pipeline and recruitment.

Since the publication of this story, DPS has provided more information. Three of those teachers have resigned from the district, and one of the three took a job at a charter school, a district official said.

Denver still has a long way to go to diversify its teaching corps. In a district of 91,500 students, where the majority of kids are Latino, 74 percent of teachers this year are white. Seventeen percent are Latino, 4 percent are black, 3 percent are categorized as “multiple ethnicity” and 2 percent are Asian.

Those numbers don’t include teachers at charter schools, which hire their own staff.

By comparison, 56 percent of DPS students are Latino, 14 percent are black, 3 percent are Asian and 0.6 percent are American Indian. Twenty-three percent of students are white.

Challenges and selling points

Some barriers to recruiting teachers of color are not unique to Denver. Nationally, “we don’t have great diversity within teacher education programs,” said Debbie Hearty, DPS’s chief human resources officer. She said DPS’s commitment to native-language instruction in Spanish is one selling point for minority job applicants. DPS plans another, larger minority candidate showcase in May.

Cordova alluded to another potential hurdle to attracting candidates to Denver — the city’s spiraling housing costs.

“In addition to being an ‘it,’ hip city, Denver is becoming a much more expensive city,” she said.

A 2014 state-commissioned report on minority teacher representation in Colorado identified other challenges. Those included negative perceptions of the teaching profession among minorities, low salaries, barriers for minority students in attending and completing college, college costs and the challenges of relocation.

Job candidates in town for DPS’s latest recruitment push asked questions and shared a bit about why they came in their meeting Friday with Cordova and Hancock. One said she likes that DPS values bilingualism, which wasn’t her own experience growing up Spanish-speaking in Texas.

Jaleen Ross was visiting from Georgia, where he’ll graduate with a teaching degree next month. Ross, who is African-American, said he came to Denver after meeting a DPS recruiter at a job fair. Before then, he said he’d never heard of Denver Public Schools.

Ross believes it’s important for kids of color to be taught by people who look like them.

“You find inspiration and you see that success, like ‘if they can make it, I can too,’” he said.

Research bears that out. A 2004 study from Stanford showed that math and reading scores improved for Tennessee students whose race was the same as their teacher’s, particularly for poor black students. Two other studies published the following year showed black and Hispanic teachers could help black and Hispanic students make greater gains on tests than white teachers.

Charters join the effort

The participation in the campaign of a half-dozen charter school operators — part of Denver’s nationally recognized “portfolio” strategy that includes district-run, charter and innovation schools — is an additional wrinkle.

Chris Gibbons, founder and CEO of STRIVE Prep charter schools, said that not surprisingly, school operators often compete with each other to recruit teachers of color.

“This is an example where we can better market the city by working together and coming together to say, ‘This is the place to be to come and make an impact,'” he said.

This school year, STRIVE’s network staff is 76 percent white, about 15 percent Latino and 5 percent black, with the balance being people of multiple races and other races, Gibbons said. He said STRIVE — which primarily educates low-income Latino students — is building “its entire recruitment strategy” at local and national universities around attracting more Latino teachers.

The largest DPS-based charter network, DSST, did not provide as precise a breakdown. A network spokesman said 80 percent of the network’s staff is white; 41 percent of DSST’s hires this year identify as people of color, and 34 percent of staff hired last year did. That covers full-time employees including teachers and leadership.

A half-dozen local and national private foundations are contributing $150,000 to the Make Your Mark Denver campaign, with DPS committing $30,000, DPS said. The mayor’s office is the organizing entity, said Hearty, of DPS.

Hearty said the outcomes of the effort will play a role in whether it will continue beyond the initial two-year commitment.

Editor’s note: The private foundations involved in the Make Your Mark Denver campaign also have financially supported Chalkbeat. They are: The Carson Foundation, Denver Foundation, Donnell-Kay Foundation, Gates Family Foundation, Rose Community Foundation and Walton Family Foundation.