As a student at Boys’ Latin, a charter school in West Philadelphia attended almost entirely by Black students, Robert Fletcher had just one teacher who was a Black man.

“I wasn’t able to identify with any authority figures in the room,” said Fletcher, who graduated from its high school in 2012.

Fletcher is now back at Boys’ Latin — this time as a teacher in a new program that aims to provide students with what has been a rare asset in classrooms both in Philadelphia and nationally.

Launched this fall, the program establishes teaching positions for Black men interested in careers in education. Three residents, including Fletcher, are teaching at Boys’ Latin while also taking classes at Drexel University — with costs covered by the charter — to gain certification. (Unlike in traditional public schools in Pennsylvania, up to 25% of a charter school’s teachers do not need to be certified.)

The program also includes eight apprentices, who are assisting teachers and other staff to gain exposure to the profession.

Like most Philadelphia schools, Boys’ Latin began the school year with remote-only learning. “From practical reasons we realized we’re going to need a lot of hands reaching out to kids now,” said David Hardy, the school’s founder and interim CEO.

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But more broadly, Hardy said, the school wants to help remedy the relative dearth of Black male teachers. Data from recent years show just 2% of public school teachers nationally are Black men. The Philadelphia School District has reported a 5% share; at Boys’ Latin, 3 out of 63 faculty members are Black men. (That figure doesn’t include Black administrators, like Hardy.)

Research shows that Black teachers have an impact on students. Black boys, for instance, are less likely to drop out of high school and along with Black girls are more likely to attend college if they have had at least one Black teacher, according to Johns Hopkins and American Universities researchers.

Yet the number of Black teachers — in particular men — has remained disproportionately low. In Philadelphia, 54% of students in 2018 were Black while 23% of teachers were, according to state data compiled by Research for Action, a Philadelphia research group. Overall, Pennsylvania’s teaching force was just 6% nonwhite, compared with 33% of students.

State officials last year announced a pilot program to recruit a more diverse group of teachers, selecting seniors from Philadelphia high schools and providing free or reduced tuition at area universities.

“Black men aren’t always looked at as part of the solution,” said Sharif El-Mekki, a former principal and teacher at Mastery Shoemaker, a charter in West Philadelphia. “That’s disempowering.”

El-Mekki, who leads the Center for Black Educator Development, a group aimed at increasing the numbers of Black educators, said Black men who had negative experiences in school may not see themselves as teachers.

Some who do enter the profession are disillusioned after being shoehorned into roles as disciplinarians, assigned to “make sure kids behave in white teachers' classrooms," he said.

His group is supporting the Boys’ Latin residents and apprentices, providing community and coaching in an effort to “not just recruit Black men, but retain and sustain them" in teaching.

The cost of the program — for salaries, benefits and training — is about $565,000 this year, according to Hardy. He said Boys’ Latin covered about $400,000 by eliminating school security officers and substitute teacher services.

While publicly funded, Boys’ Latin, like a number of charters, also has a foundation supporting it; that group will pay the balance of the cost, Hardy said.

Most of the residents and apprentices are Boys’ Latin graduates. “To have guys who graduated from high school, from college, and they’re guys from the same streets they live on … that’s a very powerful voice,” Hardy said.

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Among them is Jamir Connelly from Northeast Philadelphia. A 2019 graduate of Lehigh University, Connelly said he had caring teachers and entered the apprentice program to be “that same type of mentor."

While he had positive experiences in school, Connelly said, he had only one Black male teacher before college. Connelly has stayed in touch with that teacher — who taught him history in middle school and who he says put extra effort into helping him manage dyslexia.

Connelly thinks more Black men teaching will help in “changing narratives, the idea of what it means to exist as the owner of a Black body, especially in a city as diverse as Philadelphia. There are a lot of ways to exist as a Black man."

Fletcher, 26, a North Philadelphia native who attended Goucher College in Maryland after Boys’ Latin, also hopes to support students whose position he once was in. He first grew interested in teaching while at Boys’ Latin, but was turned off when he encountered Teach for America recruiters at college, hearing how program alumni went on to become doctors or lawyers.

“I just felt like, ‘This isn’t about the kids,’” said Fletcher, who majored in business management. He returned to Philadelphia, and worked as a substitute teacher at charter schools.

With students at Boys’ Latin, “there’s still work to be done” to forge a connection, said Fletcher, who is teaching Latin to ninth and 10th graders. “But one of those walls is down, because he sees me like I see him.”

Black men need to show students they can be in front of a classroom as a teacher, friend, and counselor, Fletcher said.

“They have to see us,” he said. “They have to know that we’re there.”