'Thick skin gets heavy:' Black men in St. Louis education form support group

Darryl Diggs was speaking to students at an elementary school in St. Louis County when it struck him — the students would likely graduate from high school without ever having a black man for a teacher.

The racial disproportion between students and teachers in many St. Louis districts is a form of educational malpractice, said Diggs, 37, an assistant principal at Parkway South High School.

Not only do black students have few role models in education, but educators also can feel isolated and vulnerable without black mentors in their schools.

The goal of Black Males in Education-St. Louis is to support black educators through social and career networking events and encourage more black students to pursue careers in education.

Diggs co-founded the organization last year along with Howard Fields, principal at Givens Elementary in Webster Groves. The two men met at a leadership retreat and bonded over their experiences rising through the ranks of school administration. They wanted other black men to feel secure in their professional roles in urban or suburban schools.

The group’s first monthly happy hour attracted 30 educators.

On Friday, the group will host the State of Black Educators Symposium. About 1,300 people have signed up for the event at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

One of the scheduled speakers is Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, where 8% of teachers are black men. Nationwide, black men make up 2% of public school teachers.

Recruiting teachers of color is a high priority for the St. Louis district, where 79% of students are black compared with 37% of educators, Adams said. Graduates of historically black colleges and universities are less likely to enter the teaching field than in the past, he said.

“It’s a real challenge,” said Adams, adding that the district is developing teacher pipeline programs for the city’s high schools.

Fields’ first principal position was in Riverview Gardens, the same district he attended as a child. He was just days from starting his first year at Koch Elementary School in Ferguson when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer outside the Canfield Green apartments, where many of his students lived.

Fields gathered his teachers together before they opened the school doors in August 2014 to welcome children who had to walk past protesters and police officers, empty tear gas containers and the growing memorial to Brown.

He told the teachers they would help the students do more than just survive. That year, Koch nearly doubled its performance rating for test scores and attendance.

“Even in adverse circumstances, I knew that all kids can learn at a high level,” said Fields, 35.

Having a leader who looks like them, went to the same schools and now has a doctoral degree had a powerful effect on students’ confidence and goals, he said. As an assistant principal at Westview Middle School in Riverview Gardens, Fields worked with 16 at-risk students, mostly black boys with low attendance and test scores. Together they planned a conference called “My Future Starts Now,” which was attended by a NASA employee, a Monsanto lawyer and a Cardinals front-office staffer among others. Fields said he still hears from the students, many of whom are now college graduates.

“Kids don’t know how well they can do until you reestablish their best,” Fields said.

Fields and Diggs believe that the lack of black men in education is owed in part to negative experiences as students. Black boys are disproportionately disciplined in school compared with other groups. The attitude among some teachers toward black boys, Diggs said, is “you’re either an athlete or you’re not, and if you’re not, good luck.”

Diggs recently felt the isolation of being one of the few black educators in school when a picture of him labeled with the N-word circulated among students on social media. He saw racist comments on the photo from students he had mentored. He felt weighed down by the implications.

“At some point, that thick skin gets heavy,” he said.

Diggs suddenly felt insecure and uncomfortable in his chosen profession and questioned whether he should stay. His mother asked him how he would respond if it had happened to one of his two young sons.

Diggs realized he would do exactly what he’s doing. His response to prejudice, to injustice, to loneliness in schools is Black Males in Education-St. Louis.