Days before the coronavirus pandemic forced D.C. schools to close last year, fourth-grade teacher Isabella Sanchez sat down in front of the District’s State Board of Education to explain why teacher diversity matters. At H.D. Cooke Elementary in Northwest Washington, Sanchez told the board, she was one of only four Latino teachers serving a student body that is 52 percent Latino.

“This gap should matter to us as it matters to the students who walk into the school every single day,” she said. “I was just one of the few people who [students and parents] felt comfortable talking to, but I’m constantly wondering how many stories our Latinx students and their families would be empowered to tell if there were more Latinx teachers to tell them to.”

As school districts across the nation have become increasingly diverse, the diversity of their teachers and administrators has lagged. And while teachers in D.C. are more racially diverse than the national average, the city’s public and public charter schools have struggled to resolve a deficit of Latino teachers and male teachers of color — and to retain some educators once they’re hired.

A 2019 report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education found that roughly 45 percent of D.C. students were males of color, compared with 16 percent of teachers. Nineteen percent of the city’s students, meanwhile, were Latino or Hispanic, compared with 7 percent of teachers. The latter gap was even wider in Wards 1 and 4, where “15 percent and 10 percent of teachers are Hispanic/Latino, respectively, but 58 percent and 40 percent of students are Hispanic/Latino,” the report said.

“What message does that send to [students]? That Latinx people don’t or can’t become teachers,” Sanchez, who has since moved to Garrison Elementary, said of those disparities in an interview. “There’s so much messaging that happens on kind of a subconscious level.”

With the pandemic affecting student learning, and with a heightened national awareness around racial justice issues, experts say recruiting and retaining teachers and principals of color is essential in making schools more equitable.

D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee acknowledged that the system has “work to do” in areas such as recruiting more Latino and Hispanic educators.

“Being able to talk to someone that shares your experience is incredibly meaningful and affirming, but also gives you that sense of promise that you can make it to that place in your own life,” said Scott Goldstein, founder of EmpowerEd, a teacher-led organization working to create D.C. education policies that represent diverse voices.

Research shows that teachers play an important role in shaping students’ beliefs about their academic prospects. Higher student expectations, the 2019 OSSE report found, can lead to lower likelihoods of suspension and dropout for Black and Latino students.

“We know the world that we live in. We know as teachers that there’s a sense of urgency to make sure that every kid will succeed, and you never want to see a kid fail because of your low expectations for them,” said Sanchez, a fifth-grade reading, writing and social studies teacher at Garrison.

Aggie Payton, a special-education teacher at Whittier Elementary in Northwest D.C., saw the importance of having such supportive teachers when he endured economic hardship and homelessness as a Black teenager in Bradenton, Fla. His school mentors, he said, taught him life skills and motivated him to stay in school, apply to college and eventually become a teacher.

Payton said he now sees his life experiences as an advantage in connecting with students going through similar struggles at Whittier, a Title I school where 96 percent of students are students of color.

“I’m a Black male, and I’m not just relatable, but I also have high expectations for students,” he said. “… That drives me incessantly.”

The city has made some notable improvements in hiring. Through TeachDC, a data-driven hiring system implemented in 2009, DCPS is receiving more applications and filling most vacancies before the first day of school, a Georgetown University study published in September found.

“Our effort to retain and attract teachers are certainly research-based practices and something that we think about a lot, including compensation, leadership opportunities, collaboration,” Ferebee said.

The Georgetown report also noted that DCPS was retaining more than 90 percent of teachers who rated as effective or highly effective, which Ferebee said is “what we want.” But the city’s evaluation system, known as IMPACT, has been found to be racially biased, with White teachers on average receiving higher scores.

Although the share of Black educators in DCPS has risen over the past 10 years — to 56 percent — that figure remains 20 points lower than it was two decades ago, according to data from the OSSE and the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute.

According to a recent district report, 25 percent of D.C. teachers on average leave each year, six percentage points above the average in other U.S. urban cities. This school year’s retention numbers, measured in October, showed a lower departure rate of 14 percent, DCPS said.

The work culture, workload and IMPACT system have been major drivers for DCPS teachers who quit, a 2020 study commissioned by D.C.’s State Board of Education found. Some Latino educators leave because they’re asked to do extracurricular work that is not compensated or recognized, teachers said, including translating documents or communicating with families.

Beyond diversity, teachers said attrition can affect stability, the culture of the school and student learning.

“It’s basically a clock reset and restart,” said Patricia Stamper, a special-education teacher at a public charter school in Northeast D.C. “You lose that sense of togetherness, and you have to rebuild that camaraderie when you bring in new people.”

Ferebee said the school system is working on sourcing diverse talent and refining teacher pipelines. Stamper, who worked as a teacher assistant for a decade before becoming a teacher in August, said schools need to be more intentional about offering pathways for teacher assistants — who are mostly Black and Latino — to be certified as teachers.

“If you don’t cultivate that system of growth and elevate the people from within, that won’t happen,” she said.

Easing work burdens and offering higher pay, teachers said, are also crucial to attract and retain more teachers and leaders of color, especially as the pandemic creates more responsibilities in the classroom and in school administration.

“I really believe it changes the trajectory of that child’s educational feeling if they were able to see an educator that looks like them,” Stamper said. “To say: ‘You know what? Ms. Williams did it. Mr. Dante did it. If he did it, I can do it too.’”

Nicole Asbury contributed to this report.