CLEARWATER — Darion Bentley could be an older brother to the students he helped teach at Bear Creek Elementary in St. Petersburg.
He is 24, a recent graduate of Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University's College of Education. And like some of his students, he grew up in St. Petersburg, black and poor.
Bentley spent the past school year as a co-teacher in a fourth-grade classroom at Bear Creek. Now he wants his own classroom, so he put on a sharp navy sweater over a patterned shirt and spent Thursday morning schmoozing at the fourth-annual Pinellas County Schools teacher job fair at Countryside High.
"To see a black teacher who knows about that home aspect, it gets them to buy into the whole education thing," Bentley said of his students as he took a break between interviews with Maximo Elementary and Bay Point Elementary. "I know your home situation, but that doesn't mean you can't come in here and work."
Both of his target schools have predominantly black and poor student populations, similar to Bear Creek.
Bentley's search comes at perhaps the perfect time as the district looks to significantly boost the number of black teachers. It's been a goal for years, one of several strategies that officials hope can eventually close the achievement gap between black and nonblack students. But a new settlement in a long-running lawsuit over the education of black students in Pinellas is bringing new urgency to the task.
A cornerstone of the deal, the district's beefed up "Bridging the Gap" plan, calls for increasing the representation of black teachers and administrators to 18 percent within 10 years, to mirror the percentage of black student enrollment in Pinellas.
In March, the district reported that only 11 percent of about 7,500 teachers identified as black. Officials want to increase the number of black teachers hired by an average of 1 percent each year.
District superintendent Mike Grego said principals, who do the hiring, are focused on the task.
"They want people in front of students who are in the same diversity of their student population," he said.
The district has agreed to track and report the number of qualified teacher applicants and hires who self-identify as black and compare them to a total figure every semester. No hiring quotas have been set for principals, said Paula Texel, an assistant superintendent over human resources.
"It's just more of an educational opportunity for us to just have that in mind … as a goal in our district," she said.
Out of the 461 applicants invited to the job fair, about 300 attended. Texel said she did not know how many black applicants were among them.
Black teachers can have a significant impact on black students, especially when black boys are taught by a black man, according to a study published in March by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, an independent economic research institute. The study analyzed data from all public schools in North Carolina, looking at students who entered third grade between 2001 and 2005 and following them through high school.
It found that low-income black students who were matched to a same-race teacher performed better on standardized tests, were perceived better by their teacher and were more likely to attend a four-year college.
It also found that the probability of dropping out of high school decreased 7 percentage points (to 39 percent) for low-income black males who had a black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade. In addition, those students were more likely to have college aspirations and take a college entrance exam.
But filling those classroom jobs hasn't always been easy.
Researchers at the University of California in Los Angeles have spent five decades surveying the nation's incoming freshmen with several questions, including their probable field of study. In 2016, they found that just 4.6 percent entered college wanting to explore education.
Bentley, the Pinellas applicant from FAMU, said he graduated in fall 2015 as part of a class of 11 in the school's College of Education. "Most people are looking for the check versus the experience," he said.
In Pinellas, recruiters have ramped up visits to historically black colleges and universities to find minority applicants, often giving them earlier interview times to fill those open positions first.
Lewis Brinson, the district's minority achievement officer, has one more solution.
"We have to start with increasing the graduation rate," he said, noting that low high school graduation rates for black students mean fewer students going to college and fewer college graduates interested in teaching instead of more lucrative careers.
"If you want to bring about systemic change," Brinson said, "then you have to start at the beginning. If you don't change that, you're not going to increase the supply of teachers."
The few teachers of color in the job market are quickly poached, Brinson said.
"You only have a handful out there trying to fit the needs of all of these school districts that are trying to fill the need of minority students. It's not just Pinellas," he added. "The demand is greater than the supply. You're always going to have a shortage."
In Florida, black students make up 22 percent of the enrollment in public schools while only 14 percent of teachers are black.
Portia Slaughter, principal at Midtown Academy in St. Petersburg, said it helps to have black teachers, particularly those who have grown up in the school's general neighborhood. That gives the teachers "street cred" with families and helps establish trust and relationships, she said.
Two of the school's teachers grew up in Midtown, Slaughter said, and "it made a huge difference with the parents."
Maximo Elementary principal LaKisha Falana said two of her black teachers are from south St. Petersburg, which can create a "positive rapport" with students and families. She also said a little less than half of her core subject teachers are black.
"I think it's great to have a diverse staff," she said.
At Thursday's job fair, Falana interviewed several candidates to fill four open positions. One of them was 33-year-old Cha'Lee Blythe. a pre-kindergarten exceptional student education teacher from Lauderhill, Fla.
Blythe — who this year taught 11 students, nine of them boys and half of Haitian descent — said he's noticed that his students behave better in his classroom. He also said he was the only male on staff.
"Especially in elementary, there's a lack of male presence. There's even a greater lack of black presence," Blythe said. "If we are able to relate to the person of authority or instructor, the hope is that you're prone to be engaged."
Blythe interviewed for positions at five historically low-performing elementary schools in St. Petersburg. He received two offers and eventually accepted a third-grade teaching job at Maximo.
"Now the hard part comes," he joked.
Bentley, the FAMU graduate, said Friday he had yet to receive a job offer. He's holding out hope for Pinellas, but he may look elsewhere for employment. Maybe on the other side of Tampa Bay.
"I've been thinking about Hillsborough," he said.
Times Staff Writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.