More than a third of Pennsylvania’s students are children of color, and just 6% of its educators are teachers of color — one of the starkest gaps in the nation.

To remedy that, a group of educators urged districts on Tuesday to consider using part of their federal COVID-19 relief funds to diversify teacher workforces.

“At a time when leaders across all sectors are searching for ways to build a more equitable American society, we can elect to do so while improving educational outcomes for all Pennsylvania children by using American Rescue Plan dollars to address greater teacher diversity in our state,” Esther Bush, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, said at a news conference. The Urban League joined other organizations — including the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh school systems, Cheyney University, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education — in the push for teacher diversity.

Research shows the benefits of diversity among the teaching ranks. Having at least one Black teacher early on reduces a Black student’s likelihood of dropping out and increases Black students’ likelihood of going to college.

Yet across Pennsylvania, 1,500 schools and 184 school systems do not employ a single teacher of color.

“That’s as galling as it is glaring,” said Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the Center for Black Educator Development and a former Philadelphia teacher and principal.

Districts can use federal relief money in multiple ways to help improve teacher diversity: for recruiting and hiring, setting up mentoring programs to encourage students of color to become teachers and programs between veteran and new teachers, and for improving employee benefits to boost teacher retention rates, said Tanya Garcia, deputy secretary for higher education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“It’s critically important that our educators have opportunities to strengthen and expand their awareness of how to approach students of varying backgrounds and lived experiences and ensure that they’re offering all students the emotional safety to engage in a healthy learning environment,” Garcia said.

Philadelphia is one of three Pennsylvania counties where teachers of color represent at least 10% of the workforce — Delaware and Pike Counties are the others — but “we know that there is much more that we must do to have our educator demographics better reflect our student demographics,” said Larisa Shambaugh, the school system’s chief of talent.

Nearly a third of Philadelphia’s teachers and two-thirds of its administrators are educators of color. More than two-thirds of its students are children of color.

In addition to existing recruitment efforts, the district will explore pathways to empower paraprofessionals to move up, Shambaugh said.

“The goal at its heart is to provide those who already work with our students and who are already committed to our community to have a path to become teachers,” she said.

Philadelphia is also examining retention programs, particularly at schools that struggle with teacher turnover. Additional supports for new teachers and more teacher collaboration time are on tap, Shambaugh said.

While Philadelphia and Pittsburgh say they want to sharpen a focus on recruiting and retaining teachers of color, that appears less of a priority in other school districts.

According to a review of 100 large and urban school systems’ stimulus funding plans, just 8% told the Center for Reinventing Public Education they plan to use federal funds for “supporting educator pipeline strategies.”

But teacher diversity matters in every school system, even homogeneous ones, organizers said.

“All students benefit from increased teacher diversity,” said El-Mekki. “They are better prepared to participate as informed and engaged citizens in an inclusive national civic culture and increasingly complex world.”