Inside the Fight to Rebuild America’s Black Teacher Workforce

Before being renamed King Arts, the school in 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 big houses this white businessman was building near Lake Michigan needed domestic workers. This demand, combined with the ability to own land in relatively bucolic surroundings, caused the city’s black population to swell to over 2,500 people, who lived in pocket communities scattered around the city.

In 1921, white leaders in Evanston responded by passing a zoning ordinance that forced hundreds of these black families to relocate. Developers inserted restrictive covenants into property deeds in predominantly white areas stating that homes “not to be deeded, leased, or occupied by anyone who is non-white in race (except servants).” Banks refused to lend money to black families looking for homes.

The Fifth Ward, covering a small triangle of land around Foster that was bounded by railroad tracks to the east and a sewer to the west, became the only viable location for most black Evanstonians.

By the end of World War II, Foster’s student body was 99% black.

That was still the case when DarLisa Himrod’s relatives arrived from South Carolina in the mid-1950s. Like many current and former residents of the Fifth Ward, the Widemans remember life in the segregated all-black neighborhood with mixed emotions.

Thanks to indignities such as second-hand textbooks, neighborhood children have derided the crimson-brick Foster Building as “Red Rock Jail.”

But those same kids could walk to school in the morning, come home for lunch, and be back in time for afternoon classes. And black teachers had worked at the school since 1942.

“I always wanted to teach because I had great teachers at Foster,” said Himrod’s mother, Phyllis Wideman-Pickett, who would eventually land a teaching position in the physical education department at Evanston Township High.

It was the fall of 1977 when DarLisa started kindergarten. At that time, “Red Rock Prison” no longer housed Foster Elementary. Instead, it was home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Laboratory School, the pride of a former progressive white District 65 superintendent named Gregory Coffin, and many of Evanston’s leading black educators.

After being hired in 1966, Coffin had quickly put in place an extensive plan to desegregate the city’s elementary schools. Each school is said to have a student body that is between 17 and 25 percent black. To get there, Coffin shut down Foster, then began kicking about 450 black children out of the Fifth Ward every morning.

The plan was “not entirely fair”, the superintendent later acknowledged.

So, as compensation, he set up the new “laboratory school” in the old Foster building, instituted a lottery system open to black families in the surrounding community, and filled the school with amenities.

However, perhaps the most ambitious part of Coffin’s plan was how he wanted to train Evanston’s teachers to work in their new coeducational classrooms. During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the superintendent organized an “Integration Institute”. A forerunner of the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives that later became ubiquitous in teacher education programs, the Institute aimed to help participants address “the things that teachers do unintentionally that can perpetuate odious racial distinctions”.

Experts such as historian John Hope Franklin gave public lectures and then worked with District 65 staff to develop a set of step-by-step instruction manuals for teachers. Topics included “Standards of Discipline in Inclusive Schools” and “Black Power and Its Effects on Racial Interaction.”

Remembering his white teacher more than 40 years later, Himrod could still taste the fruits of Coffin’s efforts.

“She was simply the sweetest, kindest woman you’ve ever laid eyes on,” she said. “I always had to go to the staff room with her. Her favorite drink was the Tab, and she bought me one too. Hell, I used to think I was something sitting there drinking my Tab in the staff room.

Unfortunately, such interactions were atypical.

In 1971, the Educational Testing Service published an assessment of the Coffin desegregation initiative. Racial disparities in student academic achievement have remained unchanged. Worse still, the mostly white teachers in the newly integrated Evanston classrooms were twice as likely to refer boys in their classes who were black to the school psychologist than the mostly black teachers in Foster had been. And most alarming of all were the results of an extensive survey of 408 teachers in District 65, who viewed the black children in their care as more hostile, aggressive and indifferent than their white classmates.

100522 Skokie Chart

For decades, the K-12 field would remain stubbornly focused on trying to change the attitudes and racial biases of white educators, said Niral Shah, associate professor of education at the University of Washington. But an avalanche of research now clearly shows that these efforts have 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.

This logic model also did not work in Evanston after desegregation.

Superintendent Coffin’s contract was not renewed in 1970, sparking huge controversy in the city that led to protests and clashes for nearly a year before a contentious school board election cemented his fate.

By the end of the decade, District 65 had closed the “Red Rock Jail”. 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 faculty, which was part of a national pattern after the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

The K-12 system’s current difficulties in recruiting and retaining black teachers “did not happen by accident,” said Sharif El-Mekki, founder and CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development. “Policy makers need to understand history. Up to 40,000 black educators have been fired, fired or otherwise disrespected.

In college, 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 council that hosted 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 would be a shoo-in, because they have to at least look like they have black people there,” says -she. “That’s when my eyes started to get a little clearer.”

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