When he visited a school in Ghana, New Jersey Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet was so moved by the children he met, who “were too innocent to know how poor they were,” that, on an impulse, he bought ice cream for every child in the school.

During his trip to the African nation nearly three years ago, in what he describes as a soul-stirring experience, Repollet learned about the slave trade. Boats sailed from Ghana packed with hundreds of captured people. Forced to sleep on top of one another, some men and women refused to be enslaved.

Desperate to stay free, so many leaped off the ship into the dark waters below, Repollet said in a recent interview with School Leader, that “the sharks changed their migration patterns.”

“I’ve never felt more proud of being African American when I returned from there,” he said. “When you get to see what your ancestors endured, you realize that you’re descended from strong stock. You feel proud. It makes me feel, as an African American, that I am strong, that I can persevere. Because if my ancestors did it, and I’m here, that means I have a right to be here. I have a right to learn.”

As the first black New Jersey education commissioner, Repollet said he feels he is a conduit for change. He said he understands the feelings and the fears of children of color, sitting in the classroom — or Hispanic people, gay or transgender people, anyone searching for a role model who can lead the way to a better life.

That’s why diversity in the workforce —having teachers and mentors in the classroom — who look like and understand the culture of the children they are teaching — is so important to him, Repollet said.

Given this vision, the current reality can be jarring.

Fifty-six percent of the 1.4 million children in the New Jersey public school system are of color. Only 16% of their teachers are.

To begin to close the diversity gap, the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) last January awarded $750,000 in “Diversifying the Teacher Pipeline” grants to two institutions: Montclair State University, which will partner with the Newark Public Schools, and Rutgers University’s Center for Effective School Practices, which will partner with a consortium of Passaic County charter schools.

Teachers of color serve as role models for all students by creating positive perceptions, advocating for social justice, and developing trusting relationships, according to the research cited in the NJDOE’s “Diversifying the Teacher Pipeline” grant opportunity.

“Research indicates the importance of a diverse teacher workforce and the profound impact teachers of color can have on students of color, particularly in elementary school classrooms,” according to the NJDOE grant. “Students of color taught by at least one teacher of color in grades K-5 increased graduation rates and standardized test scores.”

The impact is especially strong for low-income families.

When students of color from low-income families are taught by one teacher of color in elementary school, intentions of going to college increase by 19%, according to data cited by the NJDOE. For young African American boys, the impact is even more dramatic. Intentions of going to college increase by 29% for black boys in elementary school when they have a teacher of color.

“That’s why workforce diversity, diversifying the workforce, is important. Because you have 56% of students sitting in classrooms that may not see a person of color during their education. It means someone might say, ‘I don’t really know if I can be a teacher because I haven’t seen that,’ ” Repollet said.

“We should make sure that we diversify the workforce so that all students sitting in the classroom can feel a sense of pride, and they can feel a sense of, ‘I’m possible.’

“We want kids to know that they don’t have to hide anymore,” Repollet said. “When you go into the educational system, that classroom should be your Garden of Eden. Your utopia. You should be free of all the stuff that society has on us. You leave your baggage at the door. Those instructors should be able to teach cultural competency and understand that.”

As part of the Murphy Administration’s commitment to building a “stronger and fairer New Jersey,” Repollet said he expected the “Diversifying the Teacher Pipeline” grants will generate new programs and ideas that will be refined and implemented over the next few years.

Meanwhile, a growing number of school districts are not waiting for action from the state. In Bergenfield, Bergen County, for example, 38 students are currently enrolled in a teacher apprenticeship program that has already dramatically increased the number of Hispanic teachers working in the largely Hispanic district. Students who might be interested in becoming teachers are encouraged to shadow experienced teachers and get first-hand experience in the classroom. When they go to college and get their certification, they return to Bergenfield, where they have an excellent chance at being hired for a job in the district; one where they are already known and have experience.

In the central part of the state, as part of a “CJ Pride” initiative, nearly 30 school districts are participating each year in a job fair to recruit a more diverse pool of qualified teachers. Charity Fues, one of the organizers, says that the results are encouraging. Last year, more than 400 people attended the job fair. Proactive school administrators are arriving prepared to make job offers to qualified candidates on the spot, she said.

Additional details about the programs in Bergenfield and Central Jersey will provided later in the story.

As the first black education commissioner confirmed by the state Senate (Rochelle Hendricks, who is African-American, served as acting commissioner in 2010), Repollet is keenly aware of the important message role models can send.   

“In certain school districts, when you see more people of color working in the cafeterias, or in the janitorial department” than teaching in the classroom, Repollet said, “subconsciously, what does that tell a child?”

He paraphrased Carter G. Woodson, a black historian who has been called the father of Black History Month.

“If people don’t know who they are, or the rich history of the contributions that their culture has made, then they will always feel inferior, and they will always go to the back door — and not to the front,” said Repollet.

The statistics in New Jersey — where 84% of the teachers are white — are near national averages, where about 80% of all teachers are white, according to federal data. Teacher development programs in colleges and universities, traditionally, have graduated primarily white teacher candidates.

In addition to the $750,000 in teacher pipeline grants already released, initiatives at the state level include:

  • Creating a pilot program in six schools to find ways to increase the number of male minority teachers. In May, Gov. Phil Murphy signed S-703, which directed the NJDOE to create pilot programs in six schools in the north, central and southern parts of the state, in urban, rural and suburban districts.
  • Re-examining licensure. As part of an ongoing “landscape analysis” of the NJDOE’s office of certification, Repollet said the agency is looking to see how regulations can be updated to make it easier to hire more high-quality teachers of color. Currently, New Jersey’s process for licensing already-certificated out-of-state teachers is cumbersome and time-consuming, and can discourage teachers from coming to New Jersey, the commissioner said.
  • Ending the requirement that teachers live in New Jersey. In an interview, State Senator Tom Kean Jr. noted that legislation he is sponsoring, which would abolish the public-employee residency requirement, could help resolve the situation. Under the bill, S-261, teachers who live in nearby states and want to work in New Jersey would not be required to change their residence to New Jersey. The NJSBA supported the previous version of the bill during the  last legislative session, which ended on Jan. 13.

In a statement to School Leader, Sen. Troy Singleton explained why he sponsored legislation to improve diversity. “Undoubtedly, New Jersey has a teacher diversity gap, and we as lawmakers must look at innovative ways to get more educators of color into our schools. That is why I was proud to sponsor legislation, Senate Bill 703, that would establish a pilot program to recruit men from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds to teach in public schools,” Singleton said. “If we can help create more diversity within our teaching ranks while meeting the needs of our chronically challenged schools, then I think this will be a win for everyone. This is a great way to help an underrepresented portion of our population find a solid, stable career path while serving as positive role models for our students.”

Senator Kean said he thought the state’s “alternate route” program could be updated to find new opportunities to “bring in mid-career professionals who have a slew of experience” they can bring to the classroom. Both Kean and Repollet mentioned re-emphasizing a “troops to teachers” program to find ways to encourage returning armed forces personnel to enter the teaching profession.

After a legislative hearing on the subject early in 2019, Senators Sandra Cunningham and Teresa Ruiz discussed introducing legislation that would help increase the number of diverse teachers in the classroom.

“Teachers are so important in so many ways,” said Cunningham.

But the profession is having a hard time convincing talented people of color to become teachers because they can earn so much more money elsewhere, she said.

“We recognize that we can be stuck in doing something the old way,” Cunningham said. “Maybe the answer is finding something new.”

In Bergenfield, administrators and teachers say they have found a way to excite students about entering the profession before they graduate from high school. The high school apprenticeship program, which has been running for about a dozen years, is yielding impressive results.

In the 2007-2008 school year, only 25% of the 3,552 students in the district were white, but 94% of their teachers were white. By the 2018-2019 school year, the percentage of Hispanic teachers increased from 3% in 2007-2008, to 27% — a gain of 24%,  according to Dr. Christopher Tully, Bergenfield superintendent.   

Dr. Ligia Alberto, explained that the apprenticeship program seeks to light the spark of interest in teaching while students are still in school.

Last year, 38 student apprentice teachers enrolled in the elective class. Students shadow experienced teachers for two periods each day, so for about an hour and a half, every day, they are in the classroom, seeing what education is all about.

“It’s a great way to connect with this issue and find a possible solution,” Alberto said. “The program is targeted toward juniors and seniors. They are paired with a teacher at the elementary, middle or the high school, depending on what their interest is.

“They can decide whether they like it. It’s an exploratory class, so they can really see if they want to go into teaching.”

“In general,” Alberto said, “students want to have role models that look like them, speak like them, and understand them.”

Bergenfield Board of Education President Dr. Joseph Amara said that “very early on” in about 2004, “we set the goal of diversity as a priority. It was one of the five major goals of the school board.”
Tully — who credits former superintendent Dr. Michael Kuchar with helping to start and lead the drive to hire more teachers of color — said the improved diversity in the classroom, coupled with offering more advanced placement courses to more students — has helped Bergenfield High School climb in the U.S. News and World Report  rankings of best high schools in America.

For a school where 87 percent of the students are minority, the school has made tremendous strides in the national rankings, Tully pointed out.

Bergenfield’s “college readiness index” rank climbed from 707 in the nation in 2018 to 637, making Bergenfield number 1,054 in the nation, number 45 in the state and number 10 in Bergen County. The school has also improved in the national Jay Matthews Challenge Index, which placed Bergenfield High School as number 937 in the nation, and number 44 in New Jersey — landing the school in the top 4% in the United States, said Tully.

Amara said the improved communications between teachers and students is reflected in an improved, positive attitude in the school.

“I think the morale and the attitudes of the students here are really terrific,” he said. “When I walk the halls on a random day, I see the children relating to their teachers. We have so many different cultures here, and they get along.”

In Mercer County, administrators point to a Central Jersey job fair — CJ Pride — as a reason for increased minority hires in the area. Essentially, CJ Pride is a job fair that focuses on attracting minority job candidates for nearly 30 districts. Most are in Mercer County, but districts from other counties have joined the program in recent years, according to Charity Fues, director of human resources at the West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District.

Bolstered by recruits from the CJ Pride job fair, Fues said that West Windsor-Plainsboro had begun to hire more qualified, diverse candidates.

In 2018-2019, West Windsor-Plainsboro hired about 100 new teachers, and 88% were white. In 2019-2020, 75% of the district’s hires were white, and the number of black new teachers increased from 3% to 13%. The number of Hispanic teachers hired increased from 3% to 6%.

She said she thought, as Commissioner Repollet has suggested, that accepting the licensure of out-of-state teachers could help recruiting efforts. She said ending the requirement that teachers and state employees live in New Jersey could also help the efforts to recruit more, talented teachers of color.

Repollet, in a Nov. 26 interview in his NJDOE office, said the state is looking at extending license reciprocity to other states, especially the neighboring states of New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

“We want to look at how we can streamline the process,” said Repollet. “Say we have a student we recruit from a historically black college or university, possibly in Cheyney, or Lincoln, or Delaware State, which is right next door.”

Once the recruit meets the requirements and takes the Praxis course for that state, Repollet said, “we really need to look at that and see that we are not putting up barriers,” keeping that student from coming to New Jersey.

“As we try to create pathways for students, we need to make sure we have a workforce ready to accept students in these pathways,” he said. “We are looking at ways we can get the best candidates out there that want to come to this noble profession.”

Near the end of the interview, Repollet paced around his office, showing the many photographs of his trip to Africa.

As the talk turned to Ghana, and the need to make sure that people of all races and backgrounds are valued, respected and have the right to live free, Repollet pulls out his cell phone.

On his phone, he plays “Stand Up,” the theme song from the movie “Harriet,” about Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who committed her life to helping captured people find freedom. Repollet says he plays the song often, and in a voice hoarse from talking, he sings along softly with the lyrics:

...I’m gonna stand up
Take my people with me/
Together we are going
To our brand new home…

Alan Guenther is the NJSBA’s assistant editor.