I only had one Black teacher in my entire K-12 academic career. One. I graduated from Elmont Memorial High School (EMHS) on Long Island almost 25 years ago. I always brag about the quality education that I got there. It really was top-notch. The neighborhood in which we lived and attended school was culturally diverse. Most of us were first-generation Americans with parents hailing from the Caribbean, the United States, South America, Southern Europe, or Indo-Asia. My class roster had last names like Angakatchi, Smith, Notarnicola, Haytasingh, Hemans, and Jimenez. Our teachers, however, were all White women and men.
I learned knowledge worth knowing during the middle and high school years that I spent at Elmont Memorial. In fact, I’m still in touch with my 12th-grade English teacher, Mr. Jeff Laffel, in whose class I learned about symbolism and motif from the sunflowers in “Dr. Zhivago” as well as from the gangs the Jets and the Sharks in “West Side Story.” He made sure that our curriculum was representative of many cultures, ethnicities, and walks of life. The principal of EMHS at the time, Ms. Diane Scricca, is today one of my most trusted mentors. I rarely make a professional decision without first getting her insight into the matter. Both Mr. Laffel and Ms. Scricca are White.
Elmont Memorial is part of the Sewanhaka School District, which a 2009 Newsday article notes is ranked as having the “ninth highest black segregation” nationwide among suburban school districts. “We’re one of two public high schools in the nation with an above 90 percent graduation rate of our African-American males,” said principal John Capozzi. Last June, according to the state, 96 percent of Elmont seniors graduated, compared to about 70 percent statewide. And 97 percent of the graduates went on to college, 17 points above the statewide average. These statistics are in alignment with the high school that I remember as well.
In the years since I’ve graduated from Elmont, it has grown to now having a predominantly Black student population; however, the teacher population is still almost exclusively White. When all the research shows that Black and Brown students flourish tremendously under the tutelage of Black and Brown teachers, how are all these White teachers managing to help students of color achieve graduation rates that are significantly higher than state and national averages?
Here’s my theory, based on my own experiences as a Black student taught almost exclusively by White teachers in this very school: These teachers are highly intellectually, academically, socially, culturally, and emotionally competent educators who actually care about their students and hold them to the same high standard that they would if they were teaching any other population of students — that’s how!
Yes, Black teachers have an inherent understanding of what Black and Brown students experience because we live life in the same color skin and endure many of the same experiences that they do. Those nuances can not be taught. It just is what it is and any school like EMHS that has such a huge Black/Brown population needs to ensure that its students have meaningful, daily exposure to teachers that look like them. With that being said, Elmont Memorial High School shows us that not only teacher but district expectations for excellence, no matter the demographic of students they are charged with educating, is just as key an ingredient as whether a teacher is Black, Brown, or White.
An effective White teacher who possess all the qualities noted above is a more viable conduit for student success than a mediocre Black or Brown teacher. A mediocre anything is undesirable, so no rocket science there.
It’s time education takes heed of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words in regards to their hiring practices of teachers and judge them based on the content of their character more than the color of their skin.