SOUTHERN INDIANA — When 17-year-old Breanna Harper walks through the swarm of students that descends the halls of Jeffersonville High School several times a day, she picks up on a lot of buzz.
She can hear whispers between BFFs of all races and backgrounds, and she even catches bits of Spanish (her parents made her learn the language). And she definitely notices all the "cute afros."
"Generally, when I walk through the hallways, I see all types of different people. They all look different," Harper said. "And we all generally cohabitate in peace."
Harper is one of more than 400 black students at JHS. Nearly 56 percent of the school's 2,035 students are white, with the remaining 44 percent coming from minority backgrounds, according to 2018-19 data from the Indiana Department of Education.
But when Harper scans her brain to remember how many teachers of color she's had during her high school career, she settles on an alarming answer: one.
Of the 130 teachers at JHS for the 2016-17 school year (the most recent data available from IDOE), 92.3 percent were white. That number is on par with the latest data for the Greater Clark County Schools District at-large, which has a 60.4 percent white student population and a 95 percent white teaching population.
That means for the more than 1,400 black students in GCCS schools, there are just 22 black teachers. And for the district's nearly 1,500 Hispanic students, there are only five Hispanic teachers.
Greater Clark isn't unique in that respect, here or nationally. Public school districts in Clark and Floyd counties show similar discrepancies between the diversity of their student and teacher populations. The problem, some school leaders say, is one of supply and demand.
"Any time we have an opportunity to bring someone into the Jeff High high family that adds another layer of diversity, we're going to do it," JHS Principal Julie Straight said, "as long as that person's gong to be able to help our kids and meets the criteria.
"There just aren't that many people going into education right now altogether, and then the minority representation in education is" even lower.
A FAMILIAR FACE
Fifth grade math and science teacher Melissa Wilson said she's the only black teacher at Scribner Middle School, home to 151 black students, 102 Hispanic students and 99 multiracial students. IDOE data from 2016-17 shows the school employed two black teachers and 71 white teachers. There were no other minorities represented that year.
Wilson, who has taught for 15 years, said she doesn't think of herself strictly as a role model for students who look like her. Like many educators will tell you, she's there for all her students, regardless of their skin color.
Still, she sees how representation can make a difference.
"The students that I have don’t give me the same issues that they cause my white counterpart teachers," she wrote in an email. "I think it’s because they respect me and I have developed a relationship with them and we have similar life struggles that we go through in the world that other cultures can’t relate" to.
Justin Campbell and Pauletta Stewart, both counselors at New Albany High School, don't need to see the numbers to know there's a representation gap at the school. While more than 34 percent of the student population is of minority backgrounds, all but two teachers employed during the 2016-17 school year were white. Those numbers don't include counselors like Campbell and Stewart (both of whom are African-American), administration and other staff.
The adults aren't the only ones taking note. Both counselors say students have brought issues of diversity to their attention. Stewart had just spoken with an African-American student who wanted more opportunities to learn more about black history in the classroom.
"There are some teachers that are more comfortable and talk more about it than other teachers, and she expressed that she would like to see that (comfortability) across the board," Stewart said.
What Campbell hears from minority students is more about them feeling stereotyped, and like they're treated differently. Part of that, he said, might come from a lack of diversity in the curriculum.
Harper, the JHS senior, has felt at least some of that. When she's in a mostly white class with a white teacher and issues of race come up, things get, well, a "little awkward."
"Because we'll be talking about things and I know it's not what they mean to say but ... it's like they almost want to get the 'ethnic perspective,’" she said. "Sometimes it's really weird and other times it's like, I'm just a regular student like anybody else."
But Harper is very aware, for example, that she's the only black person in her AP Chemistry class.
"So I'm like OK, well, I've got to push it and I've got to make it because I am the only person who looks like me or who comes from my background in this class," she said. "...If I fail here, then there's nobody else who looks like me who is going to push that limit."
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Harper credits her parents for giving her the tools and strength to push through adversity. But she also understands why some people of color shy away when faced with the same. And beyond issues of self-esteem and identity, Harper says she has seen how a lack of representation can impact academic performance.
In her role as a teacher cadet, a college credit program that puts high-schoolers in the role of teachers of young students, Harper said she remembers walking into a classroom one day with her natural hair out "and everything."
"I was black, and I walked in there and like, all the little girls in the class that were black they were like, 'You look like me!' Your hair is like mine!'" she said. "It was the cutest thing ever."
She's found herself having to push those students of color to believe in themselves. When they see she can do it, something clicks.
"They're just like, this person who resembles me... if they can do it and they look like me, then there's nothing holding me back."
Harper thinks if more people understood the impact they could have on a child's life as a teacher, especially as a person of color, they might be more inclined to choose the profession and stick with it.
Stewart, who has been an NAHS counselor for nearly 20 years, thinks such examples are important not just for minority students, but for all students. They offer examples beyond negative images on TV.
"I think it also helps erase some biases and prejudices that may exist. You know, when you get to know somebody, you realize maybe that's not true, what I see (on TV)."
JOIN THE RANKS
Harper isn't just a student impacted by diversity issues. She's part of the solution. As a teacher cadet, she's in a district-wide pipeline program for teachers.
"The idea is, we're growing our own educators with a definite appeal to minority representation," Principal Straight said, adding that the dual-credit class (a partnership with Indiana University Southeast) is open to students of all backgrounds.
The district also makes it a point to recruit diverse teachers from around the region, Straight said. Still, there's a shortage. At IUS for example, of the 709 students who enrolled in the School of Education last fall, 636 — nearly 90 percent — were white.
West Clark Community Schools Interim Superintendent Clemen Perez-Lloyd echoed the challenges of recruiting more minority teachers.
"We are trying constantly to be diversified, but to be diversified, you have to have the candidates," she said.
In the absence of candidates, Perez-Lloyd said West Clark schools promote diversity by making sure they welcome all students and families and understand cultural differences, including language barriers. Having an interim superintendent who is Hispanic, she said, certainly helps get across a message of inclusivity.
When asked what parents and students can do to help, Straight implored, "They can become teachers!" But there's another barrier Straight is working against: competitive pay. Attracting teachers, of any ethnicity, to JHS is made more difficult when those same people can get paid more across the Ohio River in Louisville.
"It's a big enough difference that I can't make it," she said, adding that it's one reason administrators are turning to the homegrown approach.
Regardless of the ongoing recruitment efforts in Southern Indiana schools, closing the representation gap won't be an overnight accomplishment. In the meantime, Campbell and Stewart would like to see more diversity training for all staff.
"I mean, if you don't have the training, it's hard to go from there. To me, that's like the foundation," Campbell said. "Then we can build upon that once you get people training and sensitive about the subjects.
"If we don't continue to train the people who we can at least reach now, it's not going to get any better."