Why Black representation in elementary schools is necessary for Utah students’ success

Story by TESS ROUNDY

Black representation in elementary schools affects test scores, suspension rates and, more saliently, changes the lives of Black students. However, Utah teachers do not reflect the diversity of the state’s students.

About a quarter of Utah elementary students are minorities, but white individuals account for almost all of Utah educators. Almost 1% of Utah students are Black, but still, Black representation is indispensable for not only Utah’s Black children, but for all students.

Mary Burbank is the director of the University of Utah’s Urban Institute for Teacher Education. This program prepares future educators to teach in diverse classrooms and to serve all students well. Burbank said in a Zoom interview that although the African American community in Utah is not as big as the Latino community, teachers need to know Black history in the U.S. and how that history manifests today.

“Clearly, African American voices need to be heard and present in conversations and in the population of teachers,” Burbank said.

When Black children have at least one Black teacher in elementary school, there is improvement in their school performance. But it has other extensive benefits too.

A 2017 study found that African American students who had a same-race teacher between third and fifth grade performed better on standardized testing and were less likely to drop out of high school. Additionally, these students were more likely to pursue college. These are achievements that directly impact employment rates, civic engagement, health and crime, all of which affect quality of life. 

It’s worth noting that positive impacts of Black teachers compared to their white colleagues isn’t inherently attributed to a similarity in culture, race or ethnicity. A large aspect is the expectation Black teachers hold for their Black students that white teachers do not.

Teachers who set high standards for their students, see students perform better. Unfortunately, this study found, white teachers are less likely to expect their Black students to perform well. This can, in turn, become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Portrait of Danielle Newell. Courtesy of Danielle Newell.

This isn’t to say ethnicity and culture have nothing to do with the discrepancy. When children have teachers who look like them, or have similar backgrounds and culture, these teachers can act as role models and offer a concrete example of goals students can achieve. With low rates of Black teachers, some students may never have this exemplar. 

Black students at Dilworth Elementary School in Salt Lake City may reap the benefits of having a same-race teacher, though. Danielle Newell teaches sixth grade here. She said in a Zoom interview, that of course Black teachers are important for young Black children, but added, “It’s also important for white kids to have someone that doesn’t look like them as a leader too.”

Newell believes that an increase in diverse teachers helps all children by breaking stereotypes, and she’s not alone in this belief.

Gloria Ladson-Billings, a renowned African American teacher-educator, wrote, “There is something that may be even more important than Black students having Black teachers and that is white students having Black teachers! It is important for white students to encounter Black people who are knowledgeable. … What opportunities do white students have to see and experience Black competence?”

While Black educators are paramount to the success of Black students and benefit all students, white teachers aren’t bootless. Culturally responsive white teachers can positively impact their Black students, break down stereotypes and properly educate all students too.

Culturally responsive teaching takes into account the different cultures and backgrounds of every student. Not only does this teaching style consider these things, but culturally responsive teaching also recognizes that these differences have a positive impact in the classroom.

This means teachers address their own biases, get to know their students’ families, learn and teach about their own culture, incorporate books and media that reflect the cultures in their classroom and convey high expectations of all their students.

Jenny Harper is a white student in the U’s Urban Institute for Teacher Education program. She student-teaches fourth grade at Stansbury Elementary School in West Valley City. Here, most students come from low-income families and the population is quite diverse. UITE has given Harper the tools for culturally responsive teaching in her classroom. 

Here are some books Harper keeps in her classroom. They show a diverse variety of stories, authors and illustrators. Photo courtesy of Jenny Harper.

She implements lessons that tell history from a variety of perspectives and reads books with characters from many races and cultures. Even still, she said she sometimes feels anxious about approaching certain topics. Harper said in a Zoom interview that it can be difficult to teach about Black history, especially about the horrible ways Black people were treated in this country, and the ways they’re treated today. As a teacher to so many students of color, however, she’s willing to tolerate the discomfort.

The more she’s talked about Black history and racism in the United States, Harper has realized that her students are eager to learn. She says her students hear stories of racism outside of the classroom and are aware of current events. They don’t just want to hear about what is happening in their communities, they want to learn and talk about it too. 

Burbank, the director of UITE, said, “All voices in our classrooms need to be present in curriculum and conversations. The contributions and the assets of any group of people who are a part of our fabric as a nation need to be present.”