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Advocate file photo of school desks.

While African-Americans make up about half of the students in Louisiana's public schools, only 5% of teachers are black men.

"We are certainly concerned about the lack of minority teachers, minority male teachers," said Commissioner of Higher Education Kim Hunter Reed.

"We have done a poor job of really elevating the teaching profession," Reed said.

The state had 47,300 public school teachers in 2018, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education. Of that total only 2,419 are African-American men. The state is making efforts to recruit more.

White women, as they have for generations, make up most of the teaching workforce — 28,564, or 60%. Black women comprise 18% of the total — 8,442 teachers — and white men 13 percent — 6,227.

The shortage of African-American males in the classroom is a national problem that stems from a variety of reasons, according to teachers, college leaders, superintendents and top state officials.

They say teaching lacks the "wow" factor of other jobs, comes with a modest paycheck and often puts African-American teachers in some on the state's most troubled public schools.

Louisiana's low rate of college degree attainment and the fact that some African-American men had poor experiences in school are other factors.

Even those who pursue careers in teaching feel isolated.

Blaine Robertson, 28, is a black male who teaches calculus, trigonometry and college algebra at East St. John High School in Reserve.

"I definitely feel lonely sometimes," he said. "Not just being the only black male teacher but one of the few African-Americans who are in the math field, period."

The state has about 717,000 public school students, according to the latest headcount. The tally includes 309,000 black students and 317,000 white students, state figures show.

Teacher pay averages about $51,000  per year — below the regional average — after the Legislature approved $1,000 raises this year.

The lack of black male teachers is especially troublesome since Louisiana has the nation's second largest African-American population at 32%, said Roland Mitchell, interim dean in the College of Human Sciences and Education at LSU.

In an email, Mitchell said teacher burnout — an issue that crosses races and genders — is especially troublesome for black men.

"The teachers that are most likely to leave the field prematurely are teachers that teach in under-resourced, highly structured environments — the very environments that are disproportionately staffed by African-American male teachers," he said.

The problem is compounded by the state's lack of education attainment.

Barely 29% of state residents have a college degree, while 55% have a high school degree. Only 11% of black men have a college degree or higher.

Experts say students thrive when they have a teacher who looks like them.

But Kimberly Eckert, who teaches English at Brusly High School and was the 2018 state Teacher of the Year, said white students also benefit when a black male leads the classroom. "Our world is global," Eckert said.

"If you never had a person of color in a position of power, it is going to be a rude awakening in the real world," she said.

For many students, their only black male teacher leads classes in health or physical education or coached.

Rick Gallot, president of Grambling State University, said one of his missions is to get more African-American males onto campus and pursuing careers in education.

Gallot, a former state senator, said some pople have devalued the importance of teaching. "It has become a very difficult environment for young men to feel good about that as a career choice," he said.

Verjanis Peoples, director of the School of Education at Southern University, said in an email that if teacher pay rises, "then the teaching profession should regain a positive status and become viewed as a field of lucrative employment for men."

Kevin Bastian, a licensed professional counselor at Dillard University in New Orleans, said teaching holds little interest for male or female students at the school. "It is not even on the radar," he said.

"It has to be money, especially if you are a male and trying to raise a family of four," he said. "Making $32,000 to $40,000 is just not going to cut it."

Dillard eliminated its college of education a few years ago.

"You have a university that dropped the education department," Bastian said. "Think about it."

Lori Martin, a professor of sociology and African-American studies at LSU, said the lack of black men in the teaching ranks stems from several factors — higher school dropout rates, a greater likelihood to attend public schools that lack needed resources, and employment discrimination.

Martin and others noted that the desegregation of public schools also meant that lots of black teachers and administrators lost their jobs.

Superintendents say Southern in Baton Rouge, Grambling and others produce only a handful of African-American male teaching candidates per year.

"We have done a great job of promoting engineering, the STEM careers, the medical fields, skilled crafts, welding," said Wesley Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school system. "We haven't done a good job of promoting our own profession as educators."

State leaders say efforts are underway to boost the number of black men leading public school classrooms.

Southern University is part of a national push to trim the teacher shortage by increasing the supply of highly qualified minority male teachers from historically black colleges and universities.

Northwestern State University in Natchitoches and Louisiana Tech in Ruston are taking part in a national initiative aimed at recruiting future teachers from diverse backgrounds, especially black males.

The state has launched a campaign called "Be a Teacher LA" in a bid to boost the ranks of educators.

Robertson, who grew up in St. John the Baptist Parish, said he was drawn to teaching because he always had an interest in helping students with math. "It struck me as odd that other people had such a hard time with it," he said.  

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.