Teachers flee black schools


English teacher Elise Crisp, left, works with 11th grade student Anthony Kemp, 17, during literature class at Avondale High School in Avondale Estates, near Atlanta, Thursday. Crisp has taught at Avondale High School, where the student body is nearly 100 percent black, for six years and has seen other white teachers leave for more affluent schools, with more white students.

(AP Photo/John Amis)
Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 12:12 a.m.
DECATUR, Ga. - Jason Johnston took a job at mostly black Midway Elementary School in hopes he could make a difference with the children who needed him most.
But Johnston, one of only a handful of white teachers at the school, decided to leave after less than a year, disillusioned by pupils who struggled, parents who weren't involved and the constant pressure to meet state achievement standards.
"It wasn't what I expected," explains Johnston, who now teaches high-performing fourth-graders at a wealthy, mostly white Atlanta school.
"It's not because of race issues," he says. "It's about where you feel comfortable."
Johnston is part of an exodus of white teachers from black schools that some see as a troubling symptom of the resegregation of the South.
As decades-long court busing orders are loosened or lifted, the region's schools have become increasingly segregated. And a new study suggests that the trend is having a dramatic effect on where teachers choose to teach.
Three Georgia State University professors found that during the late '90s white elementary school teachers in Georgia were much more likely to quit at schools with higher proportions of black students.
After the 1999-2000 school year, 31 percent of white teachers quit their jobs at schools where the student population was more than 70 percent black, and those who changed jobs went to schools that served lower proportions of black and poor pupils.
"The race of the student body is the driving factor behind teacher turnover," the researchers wrote. Other studies have found white teacher flight increasing - in California, New York, Texas and North Carolina - but only the Georgia State study singled out how race factored into the phenomenon.
Many Georgia teachers say they felt pressured to leave low-performing schools after the state passed an education reform law that tied teacher pay to test scores. Still, the study found that white teachers were leaving predominantly black schools even in the Atlanta city and suburban DeKalb County districts that were among the state's highest paying.
"It's discouraging," says study co-author Ben Scafidi, an assistant professor of economics, public administration and urban studies. "And the most depressing part . . . is our evidence suggests that even large wage increases won't help."
Elise Crisp teaches at DeKalb County's Avondale High School, where the student body is nearly 100 percent black. She has been there for six years and seen other white teachers leave for more affluent schools, with more white students.
She says some are overwhelmed by the culture shock of an all-black school; others just want to work closer to home. "I just don't have those problems," said Crisp, who teaches English.
But John Evans, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in DeKalb County, says no one should be surprised to see young white teachers leave for the suburbs after a year or two. Many teachers, especially young women, are scared of black neighborhoods and don't want to be there after dark, he says.
Evans rejects the idea that black schools can't be successful without white teachers. If they don't want to be there, then let them go, he says.
However, there simply aren't enough black teachers to go around. Only 20 percent of Georgia teachers are black, but black students make up 40 percent of the public school population.
That means high teacher turnover at black schools, which hurts the quality of instruction, Scafidi says. Schools that have a lot of teaching positions to fill every year can't be as selective. They also wind up with more inexperienced teachers.
During the late '90s, there was a rapid increase in elementary school construction in Georgia, and the state mandated smaller class sizes. This created more jobs and made it easier for all teachers, both black and white, to switch schools. But it still doesn't explain why black schools got hit the hardest by teachers turnover, Scafidi says.
Mike Worthington, Avondale High's principal, says some of the blame rests on university education schools. Because they don't train teachers for a diverse classroom, some young white teachers are bewildered by black schools, he says.
"They just don't know," says Worthington, who is white. "They perhaps don't understand their students, and the nuances and the style and the dress."
But that's no excuse, says Mike Gluck, a white guidance counselor who has worked at Avondale for 22 years and has covered his office wall with photos of students, white and black.
"I think it's a cop-out," Gluck says. "Whether they're white, black, rich or poor, they all have needs."
"I really see no difference in what my job is, whether the students are black or white. They're children. It's my job to teach."

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