Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Teachers of color at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School Michelle Li, Kim Parker, Wambui Githiora-Updike and Latrice Bates. Li, Parker and Githiora-Updike are among those departing. (Photo: Drew Kreuser)

Last month, three prominent teachers of color at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School taught their last class at the school.

Wambui Githiora-Updike, a longtime English teacher with a doctorate, is retiring.

Kim Parker, another doctor teaching English at CRLS for 16 years, will become program supervisor of the highly regarded teacher training course at Cambridge’s Shady Hill School.

Michelle Li, who taught English at CRLS for three years after a dozen years in Somerville, is going to the Michigan School of Education to help shape a graduate school program from which she will also get her own master’s degree.

But the fact Li and Parker have other places to go – or even that Githiora-Updike is retiring –  doesn’t mean there weren’t other reasons to leave. “It’s an open secret what’s going on,” said one black teacher at the school.

“I’m leaving CRLS because I and other teachers of color have found it to be a hostile working environment,” Li wrote. “My experiences here led me explore more impactful ways to address inequities in education, especially in self-proclaimed progressive schools.”

Parker agreed. “It was amazingly frustrating and disheartening to work for equity for all kids and to realize that so many systems of oppression prevent that work from happening,” she wrote.

In addition, four more teachers of color will not be at the high school next year but have not yet announced their intentions. Some were extended-term substitutes brought in midyear to help staff classes; one of these was the third black woman on staff with a doctorate, after Githiora-Updike and Parker.

How many teachers of color?

The importance of having teachers of color in the classrooms is not at issue.

“We’ve long had a goal of having a districtwide staff of at least 30 percent people of color,” wrote Executive Director of Human Resources Barbara Allen, “particularly as regards classroom teachers.” Students of color – as well as white students – benefit from access to “diverse teachers and role models … and being exposed to a broad range of different cultures, backgrounds, perspectives and experiences,” Allen said, reiterating district language about accepted educational practice. Also, she said, “it is the right thing to do.”

Cambridge continues to hover between 18 percent and 22 percent districtwide, though, true when looking at all staff, teachers only and for most individual schools. It’s still the second-highest level of diversity among state public districts, topped only by Boston, which this year reports more than 41 percent. (Amherst, interestingly, is close behind Cambridge at 21 percent.) Many charter schools have a high proportion of teachers of color, nearly 30 of them doing better than Cambridge at hiring and retention, including Cambridge’s Prospect Hill Academy (32 percent) and the Community Charter School of Cambridge (48 percent).

“It’s just that bad”

“The kids [of color] just really need to see people who look like themselves,” said Archy LaSalle, a black teacher who has been in the high school’s art department for many years. “I am the only teacher of color many of my students have ever had.”

“At this point,” he said, “I would pick the kazoo-playing black musician on the street corner before I would pick Mozart to teach here. It’s just that bad.”

Representation in administration is much higher: In the fall of 2014, the district reported that 36 percent of principals and 58 percent of assistant principals and deans were nonwhite, falling today to 33 percent and 50 percent, respectively, in state figures.

While 78 percent of Cambridge Public School teachers are white, just around 40 percent of the student body is. At the high school, where 30 percent of this year’s 2,000 high school students are African-American, Allen reported that as of October there were 48 teachers of color at CRLS – 22 percent of the more than 200 full-time equivalent teachers in the school. There are two black men teaching core academic courses at the school and just two or three black male teachers in the whole school, depending on how “teacher” is defined: Non-permanent staff are not counted by the administration.


“There’s not really a huge problem with hiring,” Parker said. It’s that teachers of color leave.

About 100 teachers leave the district each year through retirement or for other reasons, and roughly the same number are hired, Allen said. Just over one-quarter of the hires were nonwhite for the 2014-15 school year, according to that last presentation to the School Committee. “However,” the report goes on to say, “teacher attrition offset any overall increase in representation.”

In other words, that year the district lost more teachers of color than it hired, and the percentage of nonwhite teachers has not changed. Either the hiring rate has dropped or the attrition of teachers of color continues to outpace hiring.

The workplace

In discussing district race issues, many teachers of color and several white teachers who consider themselves allies spoke with Cambridge Day or gave permission to quote from their emails, though most asked for anonymity. They described “microaggressions” in the classroom and hallways and in staff meetings – a day-to-day general questioning of their credentials, or assumptions from colleagues that they may be able to speak for students of color simply because they are not white – as well as resistance and “punishment” for questioning the quality of the district’s cultural competency training or hiring committee diversity, pushing for changes in curriculum and teaching practices, requesting institutional support for “affinity groups” or speaking to “present concerns about equity and student achievement.”

Punishments included being labeled as “divisive” or nonconforming, ignored, called in to “the office and asked to stand down” or scolded in job reviews, they said.

In a May 2016 presentation to the committee, and in a letter to Superintendent Kenneth Salim this March, several teachers said reviews are often unfair and “failing to take into account culturally relevant, research-based practices by these educators that benefit all students, and particularly our most underserved populations.”

One longtime teacher of color, in a recent email thread for CRLS teachers, wrote that his evaluator believed they were being supportive “when it was the opposite. It has been a time of disrespect, unprofessionalism and demoralization … I was publicly, verbally humiliated by my evaluator in the hallway in front of my classroom, in front of students and adults, and then expected to have this person continue to evaluate me in good faith.”

As an immigrant himself, he writes: “I understand what it means to live their lives and, related to my work with them, I understand why sometimes they are silent. Once I was silent, too. I understand why they write in their native language – because they can. I understand why they make errors – because they are learning. But my evaluators do not see my work or my students this way. I have been criticized for all of these things in my evaluations.”

Asked about these claims, Salim said that issue of teacher evaluations is “complex,” but that a recent internal “look at evaluation ratings in aggregate does not seem to indicate that teachers of color are evaluated more harshly.” (Parker and others have been asking for an external review.)

But it’s the very “lack of administrative support to confront systemic problems of race and microaggressions” that Githiora-Updike has cited – at a School Committee meeting a year ago – as a critical factor hampering retention of teachers of color.


The departing Parker and Li are examples. They are not just teachers of color, but advocates. Parker created, and has led with Li the past two years, an Educators of Color Conference at CRLS that builds on her research and teaching work. The conference draws educators from across the region and has been well-attended by Cambridge teachers – but not by administrators. Though Salim points to the conference as a plus in the district’s racial environment, Deputy Assistant Superintendent Carolyn Turk was the only administrator who attended this year.

With Parker and Li leaving the school, the future of the conference is in doubt.

“Their heart is in the right place,” said LaSalle, referring to the administration. “But they are not willing to do things in a different way. And when we step out, they try to shut us down.”

“It’s exhausting,” Li said.

CRLS teacher Kathleen FitzGerald, who is white, wrote in an open email to the CRLS staff in early June about her thoughts at Parker’s conference: “We are losing talented, committed educators and I believe we owe it to our students to figure out why and to do better … I see the well-intentioned efforts – talk of hiring more teachers of color, the schoolwide [cultural competency] trainings. But we are falling short.”

Schoolwide conversation

Many teachers, white and of color, said that what is needed is a better way to have schoolwide conversations about race among staff.

The school has launched cultural competency training through professional development sessions run by the EDCO collaborative, but several teachers said the sessions were rote, with no dialogue across staff. Jason Romanowski, a second-year English teacher, said he has left sessions still not knowing who many of the other teachers in the room are. “The group size felt more like a college lecture,” he said.

“The schoolwide meetings have been so scripted,” said the departing Li, “that it leaves no room for discussion of issues that matter to us. Instead, we are directed to write our thoughts into a Google document that we never see or hear of again. I’ve had many conversations today with colleagues. One repeating theme is that they want to speak up but are afraid to do so … I’m saddened that CRLS teachers feel they can’t have open discourse without being branded persona non grata.”

Superintendent responds

Salim spent much of his first year on the job listening to teachers, students, families and administration, and this issue of increasing staff diversity came up often, he said in an interview –  responding also on behalf of CRLS Principal Damon Smith, he said, after Smith did not reply directly to requests for comment.

Improving the race picture is one of his goals, he said. Increasing recruitment and retention is highlighted in next year’s budget. The new teacher contract signed this May includes a new diversity committee to bring issues and recommendations to the superintendent.

Salim is replacing an isolated affirmative action officer with a program manager for diversity development within the Human Resources department – a reorganization labeled the “Dynamic Diversity Initiative.” They are hiring for the position, Salim said, although it was too early to identify representation of people of color on the hiring committee.

Students feel lack

Cambridge Rindge and Latin School students Annie-Rose Hallett, Maya Chandler, Freddie Gould and Victoria Angeles are concerned about the lack of teachers of color at their school. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

The announced loss of three active teachers of color in the English department hit many hard, and colleagues, parents and students expressed regret and concern. The exodus visibly changes the makeup of the English department, especially against the backdrop of the other black teachers who will not be returning.

Student Maya Chandler said it “upsets” her to see teachers of color leaving. “They need a support group, they need places where they feel they can speak out,” she said of the teachers, echoing remarks people often make about students of color. “Other students who want to be teachers see this and think …” She trailed off.

Chandler is one of four students – two white, two of color –  in Romanowski’s 11th-grade English class who chose to create a Teachers of Color project as their community improvement assignment, including a survey finding that 11 percent of CRLS students have never had a teacher of color. More teachers of color would be better, they say, especially heading core academic subjects, and they’d like to see student involvement in hiring committees.

Other students have spoken up in School Committee meetings on the topic, including the past four student representatives. Ben Austin and Griffin Andres, both white, raised the issue several times. “I wish I could talk about some great experiences I’ve had with teachers of color,” Austin said at a May 2016 meeting, “but unfortunately I can’t, because I haven’t had any.”  This year’s representatives, Mari Gashaw and Paul Sullivan, continued to urge action.

Critical importance

At that same meeting last year, students Emmanuella Fedé, Kavya Crasta and Juliette Low Fleury – who will join Sullivan next year as a committee student representative – asked for more support for teachers of color. They stressed the importance not only of having role models, but also their experience that teachers of color were often more willing and able to engage in conversations about race, discussions Crasta said were often shut down in classrooms.

Students Annie-Rose Hallett and Victoria Angeles pointed to criminal justice teacher of color Dionne Campbell as the teacher who has reached them the most, in large part because of the meaning she brings to the curriculum from her perspective and background. “A white teacher couldn’t speak to us that way about the injustices in the system,” Angeles said.

Salim said he recognized the critical importance of improving retention of teachers of color. Success means, he said, providing not just a teaching position but “opportunities for leadership, a greater sphere of influence.”

And he acknowledged the impact of key, visible teachers leaving. “It’s why a small number of teachers exiting raises folks’ antennas,” he said. “It reflects a value we hold as a community. We are willing to engage in difficult conversations and shine a light on these issues. There is no question in my mind that this discussion will continue – not just among teachers, but as an area of focus of other members of the community of Cambridge.”

This post was updated July 27, 2017, to correct that that there are two black men teaching in core academic courses; previously the story had said there were none.