A New Teacher at 50: Inside the Struggle to Rebuild America’s Black Teaching Workforce
Before it was rechristened King Arts, the school at the heart of Evanston’s Fifth Ward was known as Foster Elementary.
When it opened in 1905, Foster’s faculty and student body were nearly all white.
But the grand homes that white businessman were building near Lake Michigan needed domestic workers. That demand, combined with the opportunity to own land in a relatively bucolic environment, led the town’s Black population to swell to more than 2,500 people, who lived in pocket-sized communities scattered around the town.
In 1921, Evanston’s white leaders responded by passing a zoning ordinance that forced hundreds of those Black families to relocate. Developers inserted restrictive covenants into the deeds of properties in mostly-white areas stipulating that the homes “shall not be conveyed, leased to, or occupied by anyone not a Caucasian (servants excepted.)” Banks refused to lend money to Black families seeking homes.
The Fifth Ward, covering a small triangle of land around Foster that was bounded by railroad tracks to the east and a sanitation canal to the west, became the only viable place for most Black Evanstonians to live.
By the end of WWII, Foster’s student body was 99 percent Black.
That was still the case when DarLisa Himrod’s relatives arrived from South Carolina in the mid-1950s. Like many current and former Fifth Ward residents, the Widemans remember life in the segregated all-Black neighborhood with mixed emotions.
Thanks to indignities such as second-hand textbooks, neighborhood kids derided the crimson-bricked Foster building as “Red Rock Prison.”
But those same children could walk to school in the morning, come home for lunch, and be back in time for afternoon lessons. And Black teachers had been working at the school since 1942.
“I always wanted to teach, because I had awesome teachers back at Foster,” said Himrod’s mother, Phyllis Wideman-Pickett, who would eventually land a faculty position in the physical education department at Evanston Township High.
It was Fall of 1977 when DarLisa started kindergarten. By then, “Red Rock Prison” no longer housed Foster Elementary. Instead, it was home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Laboratory School, the pride of a progressive white former District 65 superintendent named Gregory Coffin and many of Evanston’s leading Black educators.
After being hired in 1966, Coffin had quickly pushed through a sweeping plan to desegregate the town’s elementary schools. Every school would have a student body that was between 17 and 25 percent Black. To make that happen, Coffin closed Foster, then began busing roughly 450 Black children out of the Fifth Ward each morning.
The plan was “not totally fair,” the superintendent later acknowledged.
So, as a kind of compensation, he put the new “lab school” inside the old Foster building, instituted a lottery system that was open to Black families from the surrounding community, and packed the school with amenities.
Perhaps the most ambitious part of Coffin’s plan, however, was how he wanted to train Evanston teachers to work in their new mixed-race classrooms. During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the superintendent organized an “Integration Institute.” A precursor to the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that later became ubiquitous in teacher-preparation programs, the Institute aimed to help participants grapple with “the things that teachers do unwittingly which may perpetuate invidious racial distinctions.”
Experts such as historian John Hope Franklin gave public lectures, then worked with District 65 staff to develop a set of progressive instructional manuals for teachers. Topics included “Discipline Standards in Integrated Schools” and “Black Power and Its Effects on Racial Interaction.”
Recalling her white kindergarten teacher more than 40 years later, Himrod could still taste the fruit of Coffin’s efforts.
“She just was the most sweetest, kindest woman you ever laid your eyes on,” she said. “I always got to go in the teacher’s lounge with her. Her favorite drink was Tab, and she used to buy me one, too. Boy, I used to think I was something sitting there drinking my Tab in the teacher’s lounge.”
Unfortunately, though, such interactions were atypical.
In 1971, the Educational Testing Service published an evaluation of Coffin’s desegregation initiative. Racial disparities in students’ academic performance remained unchanged. Worse, the mostly white teachers in Evanston’s newly integrated classrooms were twice as likely to refer boys in their classrooms who were Black to the school psychologist as the mostly Black teachers at Foster had been. And most alarming of all were the results of an extensive survey of 408 District 65 teachers, who were found to view the Black children in their care as more hostile, aggressive, and indifferent than their white classmates.
For decades, the K-12 field would remain stubbornly focused on trying to change white educators’ racial attitudes and biases, said Niral Shah, an associate professor of education at the University of Washington. But an avalanche of research now makes clear that such efforts failed.
“The dominant logic model—that racial consciousness must change before anti-racist practice is possible—is not supported by the literature,” Shah concluded in a 2021 white paper for the Spencer Foundation.
That logic model didn’t work out in post-desegregation Evanston, either.
Superintendent Coffin’s contract was not renewed in 1970, sparking a huge controversy in the town that led to protests and confrontations for almost a year before a contentious school board election cemented his fate.
By the end of the decade, District 65 had shuttered “Red Rock Prison.” and moved the academic program now known as King Arts to its current location. The move further diluted the strength of Foster’s former Black teaching force, part of a national pattern after the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.
The K-12 system’s present-day difficulties hiring and retaining Black teachers “didn’t just happen,” said Sharif El-Mekki, the founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. “Policymakers need to understand the history. Up to 40,000 Black educators were fired, laid off, or otherwise disrespected.”
By middle school, most of the Black adults DarLisa Himrod had regular contact with at King Arts worked in the nursing suite and cafeteria.
And at Evanston Township High, a white teacher passed her over for a spot on the student board that organized the annual talent show, despite Himrod’s three years of dedicated preparation.
“I thought if I did the right things, knew the right people, was a go-getter, I’ll be a shoo-in, because they have to at least make it look like they’re getting some Black folks on there,” she said. “That’s when my eyes began to get a little bit clearer.”
This Article, A New Teacher at 50: Inside the Struggle to Rebuild America's Black Teaching Workforce was written by Maryland Education on on EW - Recruitment & Retention
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