Karen Bouffard / The Detroit News
As a black gym teacher in the mostly white Monroe school district for 33 years, Selma Rankins taught more than physical fitness.
All of his students learned about famous black scientists, writers and doctors. And for the minority students who were black, he was a special mentor and friend.
Rankins, now retired, has been visiting Downriver school districts this fall to encourage them to hire more black teachers at a time when most Michigan colleges have few African-American students learning to teach.
"You have black kids, but not one teacher that looks like them," Rankins, 65, recently told members of the Trenton Board of Education; he's also addressed school boards in Flat Rock, Gibraltar and Southgate, and plans to bring his message to as many districts as he can.
Blacks made up less than 1 percent of the faculty in 38 public school districts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties this past school year, including 16 that had no black teachers, records from the state Center for Educational Performance and Information show.
The future seems grim as well, with Michigan colleges turning out fewer African-American students who want to teach. And with most black teachers taking jobs in urban areas, few recruits are available to teach in suburban communities.
It's a gap that robs children of powerful role models and diverse perspectives, experts say.
Students from districts with few black teachers may lack preparation for the diverse cultures they will experience when they enter college or the workforce, according to Dorinda Carter Andrews, an assistant professor of teacher education at Michigan State University who has studied how race and equity affect the learning process.
"For many of my white students, I'm the first black teacher they've had, and that's at the college level," Carter Andrews said. "The disadvantage is that there is a lack of exposure to a racially diverse perspective on life, education and learning."
Suburbs Lack Black Teachers
This past school year, 19.5 percent of Michigan school children were black, but 8.4 percent of teachers were African-American. And slightly more than half of the state's African-American teachers are employed by the Detroit Public Schools -- 4,796 of Michigan's 9,358 black teachers.
Drama teacher Randy Taylor, one of six black teachers in the East Detroit Public Schools district, said he believes some African-Americans may be hesitant to apply for jobs in newly integrated suburban communities.
"When I came here to East Detroit it was just a great opportunity, but I did wonder where everybody else was -- not just black teachers but any minorities," Taylor said. "But sometimes there's that stereotype that the community -- particularly in Eastpointe -- doesn't want minorities."
Carl Anderson, who has two children in Grosse Pointe schools, said it's hard for schools to be sensitive to racial differences when there are few blacks on staff.
"There are cultural things as simple as ... they make a big thing out of St. Patrick's Day -- and I don't know any black kids who celebrate St. Patrick's Day," Anderson said.
Colleges See Drop In Trainees
Michigan colleges complain they are hard-pressed to recruit African-Americans into their teaching programs, and some -- including Grand Valley State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan -- saw the number, and the percentage, of black teaching candidates drop this year.
"I have manned many a (recruitment) event in geographic areas that are traditionally underrepresented at the university, and I've talked to students whose parents say 'Absolutely not!' " said Beth Grzelak, assistant director of teacher education at U-M, where three of 139 undergraduates admitted to the teaching program this fall are black, down from five last year.
Historically, African-Americans have chosen teaching as an option because other fields were not available to them, said Vernon Polite, dean of the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University. "Now that those barriers no longer exist, African-Americans are exercising their option to choose other things," Polite said.
Janice Hall, a professor of early childhood education at Wayne State University, is the author of three books on the distinctive learning styles of African-American children -- including the controversial 2005 book "Learning While Black." She said education officials are not trying hard enough to encourage and recruit potential black teachers.
"I have friends who have tried to get employment in the suburban schools and have not been successful," said Hale, who is also the founding director of Wayne State's Institute for the Study of the African American Child and a consultant to districts with growing black student populations.
"I do not feel there is an open door for African-Americans, and there is no solicitation of black teachers," Hale said. "And I do see that suburban and private schools are having trouble assimilating African-American children."
According to Hale, the issue affects parents as well as children.
"Often, black parents feel at war with the school, don't feel welcome, don't feel they're treated as partners," Hale said. Rose-Marie Doles, of Grosse Pointe Park, pulled her 9-year-old, Damar, out of Grosse Pointe Public Schools because she felt his second-grade teacher had negative preconceptions about him.
He now gets high marks for behavior and academics as a fourth-grader at Benjamin E. Mays Male Academy, a predominantly black Detroit private school.
"She seemed to report very small minute things, like dropping his pencil on the floor, and she suggested he be medicated," Doles said. "We went to see a psychologist, and he said there was nothing wrong with my son, but he was a black child in a white school district."
Diversity Gets More Attention
Grosse Pointe is among a number of districts that are trying to catch up with their growing black populations. Administrators set aside a portion of every administration meeting to talk about diversity issues. They're studying the book "Courageous Conversations About Race," by Glenn Singleton. And Thomas Harwood, assistant superintendent for human resources, said they're working on diversifying their staff.
"There's a tone there that's very welcoming; I never felt like an outsider once," said Hope Ellison-Schipione of the Grosse Pointe schools attended by her children, who are African-American and Italian.
"But I've seen a distinct increase in the number of African-Americans, and as it continues to grow I would expect to see that same percentage speak to the people who live there."
In the meantime, Rankins continues to raise awareness of the issue across Metro Detroit.
"I tell them, if you got black kids in your school, encourage those kids to go into education," Rankins said. "In four years, they can come back to the school and be a teacher."
You can reach Karen Bouffard at (734) 462-2206.