Danielle Ferrentino was already planning to cut short her first year of teaching. She thought academic expectations were set too low for her students at KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a Baltimore City charter school, and she didn’t like how staff treated one another. Then her support group of fellow Black teachers all left.
With a week left on the job, she got a concussion trying to break up a fight. That day in 2022 was her last.
“It became so unbelievably overwhelming to my mental health that I could barely parent and partner at home, let alone try to teach in my classroom,” Ferrentino said.
Black teachers like Ferrentino leave their schools at higher rates than teachers of any other race in all but one Maryland school district. They’re also underrepresented in school systems — a third of Maryland students are Black, but just 20% of their teachers are. Research has shown Black students are more likely to graduate and go to college if they have a Black teacher, yet thousands don’t have one at all.
In interviews with more than a dozen current and former Black educators from six Maryland school districts, The Baltimore Banner found they most often leave because of an expensive and confusing certification process, a lack of mentorship and growth opportunities, and schools with little to no colleagues they can relate to — other Black teachers. Low pay doesn’t help either. The ones who stay say their principals and school systems rallied to find them mentors and support groups, and made a conscious effort to ask what they needed.
Like many teachers, Ferrentino came to the profession full of optimism and passion for helping young people. She wanted to teach city kids social and emotional skills to deal with conflict.
But the Minneapolis native also had to figure out how to teach eighth graders who were reading on a fourth-grade level and cope with administrators who she said were quick to yell at their staff. The head of KIPP’s English department, a fellow Black educator and informal mentor, was her “light in the dark.”
“And then I had built kind of a core group of teachers that I knew were genuinely committed to students, and every one of them left,” she said.
Officials at KIPP Baltimore, the umbrella organization for the charter school, declined an interview request. Katya Denisova, the city’s director of professional learning, said violence can take a toll on all teachers and school leadership should have a way for staff to communicate their disagreements.
In Maryland, 12.3% of Black teachers during the 2020-21 school year did not return to teach in the state the following school year. That’s compared to the 8.5% of white teachers who left. Maryland had little data to show where those teachers went.
“About 50% of white teachers are leaving for positive reasons, like retirement or going to another school or maybe even being promoted within their district,” said Eric Duncan, the director of P-12 policy for the nonprofit Education Trust, which studied Maryland teacher turnover in 2019. “But Black teachers, it’s about 37% of them that leave for this positive reason and close to 50% that are just leaving the classroom as a whole.”
It is a trend that has been slowly developing for decades. Schools, especially in the South, are still grappling with a shortage of Black teachers that started generations ago, according to a 2019 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. When schools were segregated, Black teachers taught only Black students. But, when Black and white students integrated, Black teachers were often “overtly fired.” It became such a problem that it caught the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“At a minimum, the large-scale elimination of Black held teaching positions during desegregation did not encourage young African Americans to enter the profession,” the paper said.
Interest in the teaching profession overall reached its lowest levels in 2010, and enrollment in Maryland education programs for college students has decreased by a third since 2012. Traditional recruiting efforts, such as job fairs and outreach to historically Black colleges, haven’t moved the needle.
Teaching can be a tough sell for Black college graduates, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the Learning Policy Institute, an education research nonprofit. It pays less than other jobs that require a degree, Black college students carry more debt than white students and, because teachers of color disproportionately work in schools with students who are poor, their schools are often under-resourced, she said.
“And the fact that many teachers of color, and this is very true for Black teachers, often experience racism on the job,” Darling-Hammond added. “Then you’ve got very difficult context for a lot of people who’d like to teach but really don’t have a smooth pathway to getting there.”
A temporary solution
Wallace Lane worked at a juvenile justice center before realizing he’d rather teach in Baltimore City schools.
“If I could give back to young people in the city and in my own way, which is through literature, writing and mentoring, and teaching, then I would be satisfied,” Lane thought.
And he was, for a while. He got a job at ConneXions, an arts-focused charter school in Mondawmin, teaching basic technology in 2017, then switched to English and creative writing. At the same time, he was juggling teaching evening GED courses, being a parent, and writing and performing poetry. He also writes essays for The Banner’s Creatives in Residence program.
But it was the certification process that made him leave the city school system this year. He had been teaching with a conditional certification, a credential given to teachers who did not complete an education preparation program in college. It lasts two years and can be renewed twice, making it valid for a total of six years.
Baltimore City Public Schools’ central office told Lane in 2022 he needed to take four college courses to be fully certified as an English teacher. He struggled to get in touch with the state education department for guidance on how to get started and ultimately decided he couldn’t spare the time or expense. So he left the profession.
“I’m not 21 years old, coming out of a teaching residency or just graduating from Towson University,” the 34-year-old said. “And I’m not a rookie. I’ve been in the field. I just want to connect with the children.”
Conditional certifications are an increasingly common way to fill vacancies when there’s a shortage of licensed teachers. In Maryland, 3,567 teachers were conditionally certified during the 2021-22 school year. That’s twice as high as it was five years ago, and most of those teachers are Black.
Traditionally, aspiring teachers graduate from an education program and take a couple of tests to become licensed. However, research shows that those exams have been a barrier for Black people, who consistently perform worse than white test takers. Complex questions unrelated to the job and that don’t relate to Black people’s experiences could be reasons.
Black teachers are more likely to enter the profession with conditional certifications, according to a Learning Policy Institute study published in the academic journal Education Policy Analysis Archives. In Baltimore, nearly three-quarters of conditionally certified teachers are Black, the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence reported.
Prince George’s County, Maryland’s second-largest school district and one of the few with a similar proportion of Black teachers and students, reported that it lost 800 teachers in 2022 because of Maryland’s certification requirements.
“It is virtually impossible to complete the certification requirements within two years while teaching a full load of classes,” former head of Prince George’s County Public Schools Monica Goldson wrote in a letter last year to Mohammed Choudhury, the former state superintendent.
At the time, teachers could renew their conditional certification only once. Shortly after Goldson’s letter, Maryland teachers were given one more chance to renew.
A spokesperson for the state’s education department said local school systems can keep employing teachers with expired licenses. Some have offered long-term substitute or paraprofessional positions as alternatives. Department officials could not comment on efforts to guide teachers through the certification process in time for publication.
sharlimar douglass, who spells her name in all lowercase letters, got a conditional certification and worked as a teacher for 15 years, 10 of which were in Baltimore City Public Schools. Around 2017, when she was taking courses to renew her conditional certification, she ran out of money to pay for the last class she needed. Soon after, she was terminated.
“Fifteen years a teacher, and I have nothing to show for it,” she recalled saying at the time. “I was a great teacher … and I just felt like no one’s going to fight for me to stay here.”
Now an independent consultant to the city school system, douglass helps teachers navigate the certification process. School system officials said they did not know how many teachers were conditionally certified, but douglass said she helps around 700 people “at any given time.” Many of their certificates have expired, she said. She sends them reminders about the steps they need to take to update their status and encourages those frustrated with the process not to give up.
Sarah Diehl, the city schools’ executive director of recruitment and staffing services, said the system has a certification manager, three certification analysts and a program to help paraeducators earn their bachelor’s degree so they can become a teacher.
“You shouldn’t have to learn how to become a teacher and just struggle with your certification,” Diehl said.
The system also offers “alternative preparation programs,” like the Baltimore City Teaching Residency. Prospective educators get six weeks of summer training and start teaching their own classes by fall while they take one to two years of courses before becoming fully certified. The tuition and fees cost teachers around $7,000, though the school system reimburses part of the cost for residents in good standing.
‘You felt like an island’
Recognizing the certification issues and other barriers for Black teachers, douglass and other educators formed a working group in 2018 to improve retention and address the disparities.
Forty-three percent of Baltimore City teachers are Black, among the highest in the state. But 73% of the students are Black. The city’s Black teachers also leave slightly more often than white teachers.
The working group suggested putting full-time mentor teachers in schools with the highest numbers of new Black teachers.
State regulations call for all new teachers to have mentors, though some have said that doesn’t always happen. Shané Williams, a central office staffer who works with the city’s new teachers, said the city’s mentorship program “lost some steam” in 2020 because mentors just wanted to focus on students. But it’s being rebuilt in a way that makes the job easier on those who volunteer. A new program will launch in January, and mentors will be paid for attending.
The Learning Policy Institute found that meeting regularly with a mentor to discuss job and professional development can improve retention. A lack of support can lead to turnover.
Having a support system is what kept Michelle Early, a Baltimore native, at Frederick County Public Schools.
Early left a career in finance after volunteering at her niece’s school and realizing helping students fulfilled her more than working in a bank. In 2021, she became a full-time business teacher at Walkersville High School, where she didn’t have many Black colleagues.
“I remember counting and there were under 10 staff members of color,” she said. “I was including janitorial crew, teachers of record and support staff.”
So Early took it upon herself to find colleagues she could relate to. She was assigned a Black mentor, a veteran Urbana High School teacher, through the school system’s equity office and connected with other educators of color through the Frederick County Teachers Association’s Diversity Ambassadors Program. She chatted with colleagues about behavior management over coffee at one of the program’s events. At another, she bonded with other educators at an ax-throwing venue.
“If I didn’t have any of that, I don’t know if I would still be in the classroom even at Year Three,” she said. “I feel like God has positioned me to be around people who are going to help me grow.”
Dawn Lynch, who teaches English language learners at Lincoln Elementary School in Frederick, started Diversity Ambassadors in 2016 when she realized teachers were leaving because of the lack of diversity. While 14% of Frederick County students are Black, only 3% of its nearly 3,000 teachers are Black, state data shows.
Teachers of color often had no one else who looked like them in their buildings, Lynch said. “You felt like an island. You felt isolated, alone” and sometimes discriminated against. “And that could be people that you work with, maybe some parents or community members. You just didn’t feel like you fit or you belong,” she said.
Frederick lost 20.9% of its Black teachers last year, twice as high as 2019.
“When we looked at the common reasons our teachers were leaving, it was because they were either relocating or retiring,” said April Vierra, Frederick’s teacher recruiter. “It didn’t give us a lot of results about a specific strategy we need to initiate or things we need to look at.”
To help with retention, school system leaders say they have a three-year comprehensive support plan for new teachers that includes teaching them about the curriculum and opportunities to learn from experienced teachers. They didn’t have initiatives specific to Black teachers but hope to create affinity groups, so educators who share a common interest can bond within school buildings, and conduct “stay interviews” to find out what makes teachers stick around.
Frederick County also offers tuition benefits and paid sabbaticals for student-teaching, a step on the teacher certification pathway. That’s helped support staff become teachers and increased the number of teachers of color.
Still, they “definitely have the goal of doing better,” Vierra said.
Growing up on the Eastern Shore, La’Tier Evans didn’t have a Black teacher until eighth grade. That’s when the possibility of becoming an educator hit her.
“Coming from a small town, it is sometimes hard to visualize yourself in spaces where you don’t see people of color,” the Somerset County native said.
Now, Evans is the only Black secondary math teacher in neighboring Worcester County. She wants to give her students at Pocomoke High School, 45% of whom are Black, that same exposure.
The school has had success retaining Black educators. The small staff looks markedly different today compared to when Principal Jenifer Rayne got there. About a quarter of the nearly 40 teachers are people of color; six years ago, 95% were white.
Evans was one of Rayne’s recruits, and the two have bonded in an environment Evans describes as comfortable and supportive. She knows she can talk to Rayne if there’s an issue and that conflicts can be resolved in a productive way. She was encouraged to paint one wall of her classroom a color of her choice — purple — and a collage on the opposite wall includes a photo of Rayne holding Evans’ 1-year-old.
Rayne said the math teacher is “fantastic” at forming relationships with students. Evans likes to joke with her freshmen that, “if Beyoncé herself was a math teacher, she would definitely be me.”
“Hi, Beyoncé,” a student greets her one day in the hallway, not far from a mural of eight fists of different hues in the air representing diversity, painted by students after George Floyd was murdered.
The inclusive environment took “intentional” work to build, Rayne said. That starts with recruiting and extends to a school equity team, implicit bias training and affinity groups.
“When we hire teachers of color, they want to know what we are doing to support teachers of color specifically … you need to be prepared as a school leader to talk about those things,” she said. “I’m a 48-year-old white lady, and I need to have conversations with our teachers of color around what they need to feel completely supported in order to stay in education.”
Four years ago, Rayne started the Race to Teach dual-enrollment program that recruits a diverse cohort of high school students to take college classes toward a bachelor’s degree in education. Since then, the program has expanded to six schools, and it inspired the school district to apply for a state grant to increase teacher diversity.
Worcester was one of the few districts in Maryland that set such goals to improve teacher diversity, according to a Century Foundation report. Darling-Hammond, of the Learning Policy Institute, noted other states have made more progress through policy, legislation and teacher residency programs.
But there is hope for Maryland, she said, through the Blueprint, landmark education reform legislation. State leaders say the Blueprint’s initiatives, such as raising starting salaries to $60,000; incentivizing teachers to pursue an advanced certification; and elevating teacher preparation, mentorship and new teacher programs, will lead to high-quality and diverse teachers. Most of the details are still being worked out.
“That’s very promising,” she said. “It’s now a question about how you get people to implement them in the right way.”
This story was produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.
Greg Morton contributed reporting.