Updated: June 15, 2022 11:02 AM EDT | Originally published: June 8, 2022 8:00 AM EDT

When Ralph Saint-Louis first arrived at Lowell Public High School in 2018, students often asked him if he was a substitute or foreign language teacher. “They hadn’t even conceptualized the possibility that you could have a science teacher of color,” says Saint-Louis, a tenth grade biology teacher who is Black and Haitian American.

Massachusetts’ Lowell School District consists of about 14,000 students. More than three-quarters identify as BIPOC, compared to only 13% of educators. Massachusetts’ public schools have come under fire for being intensely segregated. A 2020 study from the Center for Education and Civil Rights found that, in Massachusetts, nearly 50% of intensely segregated nonwhite schools (those with over 90% nonwhite students) were among the state’s worst performing schools, while only about 3% of intensely segregated white schools (with over 90% white students) were among the worst performing.

Saint-Louis has always wanted his BIPOC students to feel seen in the classroom—and making sure they are taught by a diverse group of teachers is an important part of that. As an education policy fellow for Teach Plus, a national organization founded in 2007 to promote diverse leadership among teachers, Saint-Louis has been advocating for policies to encourage the recruitment and retention of diverse educators. In collaboration with a community organizing group called the Coalition for Anti-Racism, Equity & Justice in Education (CARE), he has been pushing for the Educator Diversity Act in the state legislature, which would require mandatory diversity and anti-bias training for school staff, establish educator diversity councils, and create a special fund targeted at programs focused on increasing educator diversity and retention.

While teaching the genetics and evolution unit, Saint-Louis makes a special effort to engage his students on topics that go beyond the traditional syllabus. (Courtesy Photo)
While teaching the genetics and evolution unit, Saint-Louis makes a special effort to engage his students on topics that go beyond the traditional syllabus.
Courtesy Photo

It would also require schools to disaggregate their data by race, so schools like Saint-Louis’s don’t lump teachers together with facilities and lunch staff members. (Schools can get around hiring more teachers of color if they are able to show that they have nonwhite staff—even if those staff aren’t in the classroom.) Two years ago, as part of a district-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion project, Saint-Louis and a colleague did a deep dive into the district’s recruiting and hiring practices and found inconsistencies in the hiring process—particularly in the lack of consistency in the questions asked of candidates—and noticed that the district did not disaggregate its data. “If you want to make intentional actions, you need to disaggregate the data so you can know what you’re working with,” Saint-Louis says.

Saint-Louis is also part of the UMass Lowell School of Education Advisory Board, which has directed more than $100,000 in funding and scholarships to teacher candidates during their student teaching experience so they don’t have to be unemployed for months with no source of income. That’s important because teacher candidates in the state are otherwise expected to spend three months teaching full-time in a classroom in addition to attending a weekly seminar. “Knowing you must afford three months of bills on limited to no income is a deterrent,” he says, especially for educators of color who are less likely to have generational wealth to support them. The median wealth of Black households in the U.S. was $24,100 compared to $189,000 for white households in 2019, according to research from the Center for American Progress.

Seeing teachers of color who may share a students’ race is important to kids’ success in school, but so is tailoring his curriculum to include student identities and histories, Saint-Louis says.

While teaching the genetics and evolution unit, Saint-Louis makes a special effort to engage his students on topics that go beyond the traditional syllabus. While it’s common to discuss biological sex, DNA and chromosomes, he also makes it a point to discuss gender identity. This year, teaching the topic aligned with national pronouns day, he says. “So I launched the lesson by talking about pronouns and how people identify to give a clearer understanding of the difference between biological sex and gender identity,” he says.

When teaching about the science of skin color, Saint-Louis felt it was appropriate to include additional context around scientist Carl Linnaeus, who is known as the father of modern taxonomy of the “classification of organisms.” (Linnaeus also released a journal with racist beliefs that tied negative traits to Asian and Black people.) School leadership had encouraged instructors to agree on what they would teach in classes to allow for a uniform experience, he says. “That one in particular I got a lot of pushback from my team to talk about because they did not feel ready to have the conversation with their students.” They requested additional training and time to include the material in the curriculum so they could be ready for next year, Ralph-Louis said.

So Saint-Louis helped secure funding to create affinity groups for Black, Latinx, Asian and white educators to foster a sense of belonging and engage in these difficult conversations. “Students are great but you also need to know that you have adults nearby that will support you,” he says. There’s certainly a need, according to staff at the school. “It can be very isolating to be the only Black, Hispanic or Asian person in a school and this includes people across the district,” says Yvette Cheeks, a Black mediation coordinator at Lowell Public High School. They talk about how to support students but also their frustrations in a confidential and safe space, she says.

Across the board, Saint-Louis has gone above and beyond to help students of color feel comfortable and succeed—down to literally setting the tone in his own classroom. At the beginning of each school year, Saint-Louis asks students to share 10 of their favorite songs; at least one needs to be relevant to their cultural, ethnic identity. “I just play [them] to have some ambience in the background,” he says, “to give them something to hang out with and vibe with.”

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at [email protected].

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