By Bob Skolnik
At Riverside-Brookfield High School the sponsor of the African-American and Minority Empowerment Club is white. That's largely because there are no African-American teachers at RBHS.
There has not been a black teacher at RBHS for at least the past 40 years or, perhaps, ever, according to the recollection of several people who have long been associated with the school.
In the 2016-17 school year 5.7 percent of RBHS students were black, 34.2 percent Hispanic and 55.5 percent white according to Illinois School Report Card.
African-American teachers are in short supply in all of the schools within the Landmark circulation area.
There are three black teachers at Lyons Township High School. In local elementary school districts, there is one black teacher and black one social worker at Congress Park School in Brookfield, where 10 percent of the student enrollment is black, and two black teachers in Riverside Elementary School District 96.
There are no African-American teachers on the staff at Komarek School in North Riverside, where approximately 13 percent of the students are black. Komarek Superintendent Brian Ganan said there is a full-time substitute teacher at Komarek who is black.
Lincoln School in Brookfield does not have an African-American teacher and there are no black teachers in Brookfield-LaGrange School District 95, where the teaching staff was 99 percent white according to state figures.
The percentage of Hispanic students in all of the Landmark-area school districts also far surpasses the percentage of Hispanic teachers. No school district, except for Lyons Township High School, has a Hispanic student population less than 30 percent of total enrollment.
Yet, according to the 2017 school report cards issued by the Illinois State Board of Education, Hispanic teachers comprise less than 7 percent of faculty in all of the districts (RBHS apparently did not supply demographic information for teachers in 2017).
In District 95, for example, where Hispanic enrollment is 30 percent, less than 1 percent of teachers is Hispanic. At Congress Park School in Brookfield, where Hispanic students comprise almost 42 percent of enrollment, less than 2 percent of teachers are Hispanic.
In District 103, where enrollment is 68.5 percent Hispanic, just 6.4 percent of teachers is Hispanic.
The lack of black teachers is something that black students say they notice.
"I think that it is a concern, and representation really matters," said Coretta Dishmon, an RBHS senior who became the school's first black homecoming queen last fall.
Sophomore Shalah Russell agrees.
"Representation is everything," Russell said. "Just seeing someone who looks like you, who might have the same troubles as you and the same background … there's a sense of support that's important for you."
RBHS sophomore Seymone Russell, Shalah's twin sister, said that she doesn't like hearing white teachers saying that they understand the issues she is facing.
"It's hard to hear that they understand what we're going through when they're not like us," Seymone Russell said. "We think it's kind of insulting to say you understand what we're going through because you don't. It's hard to take them serious when they say that."
A 2017 study at John Hopkins University found that having a black teacher, at least in elementary school, has significant benefits for black students in general, and for low-income black boys in particular.
The study found that having a black teacher in third through fifth grade reduced a black student's chance of dropping out of school before graduating from high school by 29 percent overall and by 39 percent for low-income black boys.
"There are studies that show that when you have African-American students that are taught by African-American teachers, those students definitely do perform better on test scores and overall student achievement," said Claudia Jimenez, principal at Congress Park School.
Rashida McKelvin, a black member of the Komarek District 94 Board of Education, said that having a diverse teaching staff is important.
"I think it's important to have a diverse staff, because that way you can bring different insights," McKelvin said. "It's very important."
RBHS had a black school nurse for nearly 18 years. But, Alison Jackson, who used to be the sponsor of the African-American Club, was fired by a unanimous vote of the school board in 2016 for reasons that have never been explained.
When asked about Jackson's termination, District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said that he couldn't comment about a personnel matter.
Jackson had stopped coming to work in December of 2015. Whatever the reasons for Jackson's firing her absence was something that black students at RBHS noticed.
"All of the African-American students noticed," Dishmon said. "She definitely made an impact on a lot of people and a lot of people were very disappointed that she left."
District 208 had a black business manager, John Gibson, from 2000 to 2007 before he left to take a new job at a larger school district. RBHS currently has two black volunteer assistant coaches, Anthony Roberts in boys basketball and wrestling coach Greg Hall.
Administrators say they would like to have a diverse teaching staff, but also say the prime focus is on selecting the best teacher for every open position.
"It is important to strive for a faculty that is representative of our student body," said RBHS Principal Kristin Smetana. "When hiring a teacher or staff member our ultimate goal is to hire the best person possible for the position."
Ed Piotrowski, the director of human resources at LTHS said much the same thing.
"When we're recruiting we're looking for the best and brightest for all of them," Piotrowski said. "Obviously, we want a teaching staff and a paraeducator staff that represents our population, but I don't think we're looking for any one thing over another. We're just looking for the best fit for the school district."
Most applications for teaching positions come in online now and it is difficult to even know a candidate's race from a resume. And administrators note that it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of race.
"We can't legally ask a candidate what race they are, so when we're screening applicants we're always looking to find the best teacher possible so that's always the ultimately our goal," Smetana said.
However, RBHS and LTHS do make some efforts to seek out black applicants. Smetana said that she is part of the Black Educator Network of Suburban Chicago.
"I will reach out to them whether it's at a meeting or via email to let them know of our openings," Smetana said.
RBHS also pays $1,500 a year for an annual advertisement in the publication Minority Reporter.
Smetana said that she didn't know how many black teaching candidates have been interviewed for teaching jobs at RBHS since she came to the school in 2012. Skinkis said that an African American was a finalist for a special education teaching position last summer.
At LTHS, a school more than twice the size of RBHS, two teachers get reduced teaching loads to serve as liaisons to the school's African-American and Hispanic communities.
LTHS representatives used to attend job fairs at historically black colleges in the south in attempt to recruit black teachers, but officials say that wasn't very successful and now teacher-specific job fairs are rare.
"We've found after repeated attempts that unless those teachers are from the Midwest they're not interested in the Midwest," said Jennifer Bialobok, the District 204 community relations coordinator. "The cold and snow doesn't attract people."
There are not many black teachers working at majority white schools. According to a 2016 United States Department of Education Report, 82 percent of public school teachers in the country are white.
Ganan said that while the goal is always to put the best teacher in front of kids he think's diversity is important.
"I think we're always looking for the best candidate, but we do take that into consideration, Ganan said. "It's always important to have adults that kids can related to, whether that be race or ethnicity of whether that is strong connections that kids can make with adults. That is something we look at."