By Barbara Taormina
A 2010 graduate of Salemwood School was back in Malden this week with a message for the School Committee: the school district needs to hire more teachers of color.
Lorna Closeil, who is now a junior at Centre College in Kentucky, challenged school committee members to do more to live up to Malden’s ideals of diversity and inclusion. Closeil’s challenge followed a powerful presentation by a group of current Salemwood eighth graders who described different types of racism, exclusion and aggression they have seen and experienced as students in Malden.
“I am here to share the impact that having a teacher of color has had on my life,” Closeil who told committee members.
Closeil said that during her early years at Salemwood she was cast as a “troubled student,” a label that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her grades crashed, and she was constantly in and out of in-house suspension.
But when she reached the seventh grade, Closeil connected with math teacher Jennifer Hedrington, her first teacher of color.
Meeting a teacher who came from a similar background who could relate to her beyond the classroom and help her understand herself had a profound impact on Closeil.
“I was able to shift my self-concept as a troubled student to one that reaffirmed my ability to be a leader in and out of the classroom,” she said.
Closeil said it was crucial to have teachers of color in a public school system where minority students continually face blatant racism, micro-aggressions and feelings of otherness.
“This is unacceptable when education is meant to be an equalizer,” she said.
According to numbers from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, nearly 20 percent of the students in Malden public schools are African American, but only 3.9 percent of the district’s teachers are Black.
Asians make up roughly 24 percent of the students in the district, but only 3.4 percent of the teachers. Hispanics account for just over 23 percent of Malden students but only 2.2 percent of the district’s teaching staff.
According to DESE, as of 2018 just over 29 percent of the students and 89 percent of the teachers in Malden schools are white.
Closeil said providing minority students with teachers who offer representation can dramatically affect the trajectory of their lives.
“We need to begin an active recruitment of teachers of color,” she told the School Committee adding that all administrators should also undergo bias training.
‘Diversity without inclusion is not effective,” Closeil said. “It is damaging.”