Facing a shortage of Black teachers, LAUSD gets creative


Former LAUSD theater teacher Estella Owoimaha-Church gives instructions in her classroom at Edward R. Roybal Learning Center. She left the profession in 2022. Photo by UTLA/Pablo Serrano.

Estella Owoimaha-Church became a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District despite her own mixed experiences as a student at North Hollywood High School, where most of her educators were white.

Owoimaha-Church, a daughter of Nigerian and Samoan immigrants, says she had teachers who cared for her and championed her success. But she also had a guidance counselor who scoffed at her chances of getting into her top choice college, New York University. 

“She goes, ‘Spelman? Well, at least you're Black, you've got that going for you,’” Owoimaha-Church recalls. 

Owoimaha-Church graduated, went to college, and became a high school guidance counselor herself. Then she earned her credential to become a theater teacher at Edward R. Roybal Learning Center, a high school in Los Angeles’ Westlake neighborhood.

“I was hoping to be in classrooms where I would be able to support other Indigenous, first generation, Pacific Islander, and Black students,” she says. 

The Los Angeles Unified School District has had to get creative to recruit and retain Black teachers like Owoimaha-Church, but it’s been a challenge. 

The district effort is due in part to a growing body of research that shows Black students are more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college when they have at least one Black teacher in the early grades.

“At all levels of schooling across the country, on all different sorts of outcomes that we care about, students of color really benefit from having a same-race teacher,” says Seth Gershenson, professor of public policy at  American University’s School of Public Affairs.

A 2022 district report by independent analysts found that the share of Black teachers in LAUSD nearly mirrored the share of its Black students, about 9%. And while a vast majority of Black students in LAUSD attended a school with at least one Black teacher, the analysts found that 2,000 Black students did not – most of them in elementary schools. 

Moreover, Black teachers are retiring and not being replaced by a younger generation at a rate that satisfies district officials. 

“Black teachers are not coming into the profession at the same rate as in previous years,” says LAUSD educational transformation officer Dr. Robert Whitman. “It's a concern that the district felt needed to be addressed.”

Whitman says district efforts to diversify the new educator pipeline include partnering with local universities and encouraging Black district employees, like school counselors and teaching assistants, to become certificated through LA Unified’s own credentialing program.

But as the Black population in California declines, Whitman says LAUSD human resources representatives are joining Black students on field trips to the nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities, to recruit directly from their teacher preparation programs. 

Whitman says they’ve seen some success.

“It's not droves, right, it's not large numbers … and not the progress that we want to see,” he says, “but we are seeing progress, and it’s a little bit better than what we’re seeing across the state right now.”

Whitman says the high cost of living in Los Angeles is a serious barrier to entry for new teachers. “It's making it very difficult for not only the district to attract Black educators, but educators in general,” he says.

But education and policy experts say potential Black teachers face unique hurdles that begin with racial inequities embedded into the education system. 

For example, Black students, and in particular Black boys, face higher rates of suspension, expulsion, and discipline in school. Peter Watts, co-founder of Watts of Power, a Los Angeles nonprofit that recruits and supports Black men entering the teaching profession, says that can push potential educators away.

“Becoming a teacher is not something they would consider if they had been traumatized in their K-12 education,” he says.

Further, Gershenson points to racial disparities in high school graduation rates, college enrollment and college completion rates, which narrows the potential pool of Black educators.

When it comes to keeping Black teachers in the classroom, recruitment is only the first challenge. Once on the job, Black teachers who feel isolated or unsupported are leaving the profession.

Gina Gray, an English teacher at Middle College High School in the West Athens neighborhood of Los Angeles, says she’s been able to envision a long career in the district in part because of the early career support she received at a school with an all-Black English department. 

“There was so much community and sharing, but I had peers who didn't have that and they were isolated,” says Gray, who is Black. “They didn't have the same type of support that I had in the beginning, and that is the key.” 

One hundred Black teachers have left the Los Angeles Unified School District each year since 2016, according to the 2022 report. 

One of them was Estella Owoimaha-Church, the North Hollywood High School graduate turned theater teacher.

“I was fighting really hard to stay, and looking for everything that could prolong me staying,” she says.

But, she says, teaching during the pandemic was miserable. On top of that, national pushback against ethnic studies curriculum and the Black Lives Matter movement weighed heavily on her. 

She left Roybal in 2022, after 10 years in the classroom – three of them in LAUSD.

“It is very, very obvious that it just was never intended for us to thrive in public education – to receive an education,” she says, “and it definitely was not intended for us to be educators.”



Robin Estrin