When Sung Hwa Chang was growing up in Everett, the Korean-American was one of the few students of color in a predominantly Irish and Italian community.
By 2009, however, when Chang returned to teach biology at Everett High School, Haitians, Moroccans, Vietnamese, and other students of color outnumbered white students in the classrooms.
And Chang, whose family had immigrated to Everett when he was a toddler, was particularly qualified to address the city’s changing demographics.
“I feel it’s easier for me to relate to the students who have just immigrated or have parents that do not speak English,” Chang said. “Getting them through the little things, like helping to translate forms, explaining the importance of extracurricular activities in addition to academics, was very important to me since I myself had trouble with those same things with my parents.”
Everett, whose minority student enrollment skyrocketed from 27 percent in 2001-2002 to 60 percent a decade later, has struggled to attract more teachers like Chang. According to data from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, 4.4 percent of Everett’s teachers in the 2011-2012 school year were members of an ethnic or racial minority.
The city is not alone in facing a chasm between the diversity of its students and that of its teachers. From Andover to Bedford to Sharon, many public schools in Greater Boston have seen their student populations change during the past decade as more black, Chinese, Indian, Hispanic and Middle Eastern families move in. But their teachers remain predominantly white.
In Lexington, more than 40 percent of students are minorities, compared with 22 percent a decade ago. In Andover and Sharon, traditionally white suburbs, the percentage of minority students has more than doubled.
Yet only in a handful of local suburban districts does the proportion of minority teachers exceed 10 percent.
“If you ask any superintendent in the state, it’s an obvious need,” said Candace Hall, Andover’s human resources director. “We’re seeing increased diversity that is growing at a much faster rate than the teacher population.”
This diversity gap is a statewide issue, with nonwhite students in Massachusetts accounting for 33 percent of enrollment in the 2011-2012 school year, while the share of minority teachers was 7 percent.
School superintendents and personnel officials point to several reasons for the low number of minority teachers, most significantly that the pool of ethnically diverse teachers is still relatively small.
“We go to the job fairs and they’re lily white,” said Thomas Stella, an assistant superintendent in the Everett school system.
Several suburban administrators say their districts also can be less attractive to younger teachers because of their distance from Boston.
Even with its commuter rail stop, Sharon is “probably just a little bit removed from the city,” said Superintendent Tim Farmer.
Sharon, which has seen an influx of Chinese and Southeast Asians, is hiring more teachers of color, but the district still has a long way to go, with minorities making up only 3 percent of its teaching staff, Farmer said.
Other districts trying to recruit a more diverse faculty say they are fighting a perception that their schools are entirely white, their students well-heeled, and their parents pushy.
“I don’t know if people really think of the diversity of suburban schools,” said Henry Turner, the principal at Bedford High School.
Many minority teachers want to teach at more urban settings, said Turner, who is black. He worked in Lexington and Newton before shifting to Bedford last year.
But with suburban school districts facing the same stubborn achievement gap between black and white students as their urban counterparts, it is just as important to get teachers of color in the classroom, Turner said.
“When you start looking at what the class makeups look like,’’ between Advanced Placement classes and lower-level courses, he said, “you see it. You end up seeing fewer black and brown faces at those upper-level classes. . . There’s definitely a sense of urgency.”
Minority teachers in classrooms can serve as role models, but can also help develop new ways to connect with diverse students and make them feel part of the school community, Turner said, perhaps by starting a step squad, gospel choir, or a minority scholars program.
At Everett High School, math teacher Long Le, who is Vietnamese, helped launch an Asian student group four years ago, soon after he was hired. The group tries to help students, both those who are recent immigrants and those who were born here, manage academic expectations and make social connections, Le said.Continued...