The state’s population of Hispanic and Latino students has surged over the past decade, but the slower-evolving teacher force has failed to keep pace, according to the latest state data. 

This year, one in four Illinois students is Latino, up from one in five a decade ago. In contrast, only 6.7% of teachers are Latino, a slight rise from 5% a decade ago.

Despite efforts to diversify Illinois’ teaching corps, 83% of Illinois teachers are white, a figure that has barely budged in the last 15 years, according to Chalkbeat analysis of new data from the 2019 Illinois Report Card. Less than half of the state’s student population is white.  

To accelerate hiring of more teachers of color, district leaders in some areas are investing in residencies and grow-your-own programs — but those cost money that many cash-strapped school systems don’t have.

“In the past, there’s been a sense of helplessness in the state of Illinois,” said Matt Lyons, chief talent officer for Chicago Public Schools, where 47% of students are Latino compared with 20% of the teaching workforce. But the district is taking a more active role in pipeline building compared with years past, he said.

“If the market isn’t serving our needs, we don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, we didn’t create the problem, so we don’t need to fix it,’” Lyons said. “We actually do need to be the ones to change it.”

Boosting teacher diversity is “a critical topic,” said Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, education manager for Latino Policy Forum, a nonprofit advocacy organization. Research shows that students with teachers from their same racial and ethnic background perform better and are more likely to go to college.

Various obstacles can derail even dedicated would-be teaching candidates.

Violeta Cerna-Prado knows the challenges firsthand. After graduating from college in 2015, she began to work as an elementary special education teacher in Chicago through a Teach for America fellowship. 

As a graduate of the district’s Walter Payton College Preparatory High School and a native of the city’s Latinx-majority Pilsen neighborhood, Cerna-Prado eventually wanted to shift to teaching high schoolers. But she realized that would require her to return to college for her senior high teaching endorsement.

The financial burden would have been too much, so instead she moved to UIC College Prep, a charter school in the Noble network with less stringent certification requirements than district-run schools, she said. “There is a lack of generational wealth in families of color,” Cerna-Prado said. “My mom immigrated here when she was 12 years old. That impacted us a lot. I was in charge of paying my college tuition, and I didn’t have the time or money to go back for another endorsement.”

If she could get financial assistance for the endorsement, Cerna-Prado said she would “absolutely, without a doubt” return to the school district that taught her. In the meantime, she has been working with Teach Plus, a teaching policy fellowship, to promote teacher diversity and highlight the challenges teachers of color face. 

A 2019 study she coauthored details such obstacles, like an “invisible tax” of extra work imposed on them because of their race. Translation services, mentoring, teaching students how to code switch and other tasks add to their workload without additional compensation, and can lead to burnout and retention issues. 

National Louis University is hoping its residency program can help overcome financial barriers to teaching careers. Now in its second year in Chicago, first year at East St. Louis, and in the works for North Chicago, the program is focused on boosting diversity in schools while also providing a pathway for paraprofessionals and career changers to become licensed teachers.

Related: What veteran teachers of color would say to new educators

In the yearlong program, residents spend four days a week in the classroom, working under a mentor teacher, while also taking college classes and receiving a stipend. Of the 60 residents at CPS — along with another 30 placed in schools managed by the Academy for Urban School Leadership — 88% identify as people of color, said Program Director Kavita Venkatesh. 

“Many are graduates or parents of CPS,” Venkatesh said. “So there’s a very authentic, invested interest in the city of Chicago and how they are a part of its continued growth.”

But while Venkatesh hopes to replicate the program at more districts in Illinois, not all of them can afford the stipends, which complicates the expansion. 

In Chicago and outlying suburban districts, initiatives like the university-backed residency program and the new Chicago Teachers Union tentative agreement are zeroing in on how schools can build a staff that better reflects their student body, despite a shortage of college graduates looking to become teachers — particularly black and Latino ones, who have significantly lower college completion rates.

The tentative agreement that came after an 11-day teachers strike calls on the district to create a standing diversity committee to advise it on how to make its staff “better reflect student population.” 

Now the district is digging into how the most diverse schools recruit and retain more teachers of color. It is also spearheading efforts to encourage its graduates to become teachers themselves and grow its population of Latino and black male leadership — two especially underrepresented groups in school administration. 

Just beyond the limits of Chicago’s West Side, Cicero School District 99 has a teaching force that’s 25% Latino, the highest percentage in the state.

With 96% of students labeled Hispanic, it’s vital to have educators who understand the culture, Superintendent Rodolfo Hernandez said. In his six years leading the district, he said he’s tried to instill school culture that was “truly welcoming” for teachers of color.

“We have teachers who drive 45 minutes just to get to work, but they find it very appealing because of the culture we have here,” Hernandez said. “We really celebrate diversity.”

At college job fairs and other recruitment events, Hernandez said the district emphasizes its Latino culture and resources like tuition reimbursement and mentoring programs. He has also worked to expand student teaching ties with more universities.

“We hope they get a taste of what we do here and decide to stay after they get their degrees,” he said.

And in a state where universal 4-year-old preschool in Chicago will create an urgent need for 400 additional teachers and the percent of English learners has nearly doubled since 2004, diversifying the workforce can’t happen fast enough, Vonderlack-Navarro said. 

The Illinois Report Card data released last week evaluated diversity among teachers and students statewide. Among the findings: 

  • The percent of white students dropped to 47.6%, down from 53.3% a decade ago.
  • The black student population has steadily decreased since 2004, going from 20.8% to 16.7% this year. In Chicago, the black student population has fallen at a faster rate over the same time period, from 50% of students to 36%, according to new enrollment figures released last week.
  • The percent of Hispanic students increased slightly, from 26.2% to 26.4% after 15 years of steady growth.
  • The percent of non-white teachers rose slightly from 2018, up to 17.4% from 16.8%. 
  • The percent of black teachers is down to 5.9% from 8.3% in 2009. But the decline leveled off this year. 
  • The percent of English learners continues to climb steadily, up to 12.1% this year from 11.7% last year and 8% in 2009.