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
“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.
With a small but growing body of research showing that teachers of color can help students of color perform better academically, suburban districts are trying to boost the diversity of their faculty. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also plans to launch a diversity task force next year.
Some districts are shelving the old methods of recruitment and testing new approaches.
Andover, for example, has cut down on trips to Atlanta and other Southern cities to recruit minority teachers. Teacher salaries in the South are now competitive, while the cost of living in Massachusetts is still high and fewer teachers are interested in moving away from their home communities, said Hall, Andover’s human resources director.
Instead, Andover is among several area districts, including Arlington, Brookline and Lexington,
trying to develop their own teachers. All four joined Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers last year, and are spending about $3,000 annually on each of the five students from their district participating in the program.
The high school students in the program shadow teachers, participate in summer internships, attend college and SAT preparation classes, and can qualify for scholarships to participating colleges. When the students graduate from college, the hope is that they return to teach in their former school districts.
While only a quarter of the students who start the program complete it, those who stay continue teaching long after, said Bob Harris, the assistant superintendent of human resources in Lexington.
“We think it holds a lot of promise, given the environment that we have in terms of recruiting teachers of color,’’ Harris said.
In Newton, school officials are discussing whether to hire a recruiter to find minority teachers, or to expand the network of colleges it works with for student teachers, many of whom eventually end up with permanent positions in the district.
“I think it’s worth looking at what we’ve done and how we can enhance that,’’ said Heather Richards, the Newton district’s human resources director.
The renewed focus on diversifying the faculty comes as some Newton officials complain that the city has lost momentum in attracting minority teachers even as its nonwhite population has grown. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the district’s student population was much more white, Newton aggressively recruited minority teachers, aiming to create a more diverse workplace and expose students to different people and ideas, said Sam Turner, who was Newton’s first black principal and has since retired.
“I don’t know if there’s been enough of a strong effort,’’ said Turner, who recalls traveling to Southern states as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania to recruit teachers of color. “Back in the day, it was go and do this and don’t worry about the cost.’’
Between 2001-2002 and the current school year, the district’s proportion of minority personnel grew by just 1 percentage point, to 10 percent of all school staff in Newton, and that was because more teacher’s aides of color were hired, according to district affirmative-action reports. The number of minority principals dropped from four to one.
Yet during the same decade, the proportion of students of color grew from 19 percent to 33 percent of enrollment.
“I think it fell off the radar,’’ Angela Pitter-Wright, a Newton School Committee member and parent, said of the minority hiring effort. “I think with the last couple of years with budget cuts, it’s been so difficult that the focus just wasn’t there.’’
Recruitment is not the only problem, Pitter-Wright said. Districts must retain teachers of color by providing strong mentorships and encouraging their input in school decisions.
Newton parent Lisa Bibuld said she wants to see a more diverse staff in the schools.
Earlier this year, her middle-school daughter had questions about her decision to wear her hair naturally and how it would be perceived at school. Bibuld suggested her daughter chat with the guidance counselor, who is also black; it helped, she said. “It made me wonder, would there have been opportunities for her to talk about it sooner if there were other teachers of color,’’ Bibuld said.
Xonatia Lee, a sophomore at Andover High who is participating in the Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers program, said a more diverse teaching force would help minority students feel less isolated.
“I feel like it’s hard to be in an environment to be the only one,’’ said Lee, who was born in Jamaica. “You try to adapt, but it’s hard, because you still stand out.’’
Tahera Sajid, a parent in Sharon, said a teacher’s race is not necessarily the determining factor in whether a child has a good experience in school. Sajid, whose family moved here from Pakistan four years ago, said that while most of the teachers and staff in the schools have been white, they have also been sensitive to cultural differences and helpful with the transition to a new country.
Sajid recently participated in a workshop with the Sharon Pluralism Network to help school social workers understand ethnic differences, and the best way to approach students and parents from different cultures. The organization is planning another training session for teachers next year.
“Although it would make some people more comfortable’’ to have more minority teachers, Sajid said, “I have never had a problem with that. They do seem to understand that our concerns and point of reference may be different.’’