COLUMBIA – Howard County has one of the best records in the state on hiring minority teachers. But the wealthy suburban area is not without problems in attracting teachers.
Howard County has a burgeoning Asian population, and with few Asians entering teaching, there is a growing discrepancy between the number of Asian students and the number of Asian teachers.
About 8 percent of Howard County students are Asian, according to statistics compiled in 1997, the most recent data, while less than 2 percent of teachers are Asian. The Korean population is growing especially fast, said school administrators, and many Korean students speak little or no English.
Howard has a lot to offer. Right between Baltimore and Washington, it has one of the most gifted student populations in the state and some of the highest teacher salaries. Howard also promotes minorities. Four of the county’s 10 high school principals are black and 27.2 percent of school-based administrators are black. Twelve percent of Howard County teachers are black, 17 percent of students are black.
Beyond these perks, Howard offers its new teachers a lot of support, said Mamie J. Perkins, director of personnel.
“I didn’t feel like I was just another candidate,” said Alana Walls, a first-year black teacher at Owen Brown Middle School in Columbia. “I felt like they really wanted me.”
Perkins knows the value of support. As a young black woman interested in becoming an educator 25 years ago, she accepted an open teaching contract from a Maryland school district that she won’t name.
“As soon as I went for the interview, I knew I wasn’t going to get the support I needed,” she said.
“I was the classic example of someone who was scared and uncomfortable with being the “only.” And I was a pretty confident young person.”
Perkins broke the contract and took a job in Baltimore, where she taught for 13 years.
“We recognized the need for diversity a long time ago,” said Perkins.
But Howard was not completely prepared for the influx of Asian students over the past decade. And now, the county that has always maintained diversity is scrambling to close a new gap.
Susan Chon, 24, a first-year science teacher at Owen Brown, speaks fluent Korean and wants to work in a school where she can teach Korean students. Owen Brown has a small Korean population compared to other county schools, and Chon hopes to transfer to a school near Ellicott City where she can use her background more effectively.
“I think there’s probably more of a connection between me and a Korean student than there would be between that student and someone else,” she said. “They can see that I’m someone who’s like them, and maybe understand what I’m talking about a little better.”
Chon, who graduated from Johns Hopkins last year, initially looked for a job around Philadelphia, but she settled on Howard County because of its strong overall reputation.
The average Korean student offers specific challenges that many other children don’t, Chon said. “There’s a lot of pressure that Korean kids have from their parents to go to an Ivy League school. For some that’s good and for some, it’s not so good.”
Chon said many Asian kids she knew who excelled in high school failed as freshmen in college because they partied all the time.
“They’re so happy to get out of the house that they just celebrate their freedom all the time,” she said.
Korean kids in “English as a second language” programs also have problems, because they tend to be close knit, Chon said. They never really learn the language, and leave school culturally isolated.
Howard County is looking for more teachers like Chon to solve these problems, Perkins said, but talented young Koreans do not traditionally enter teaching.
“The Korean problem is probably not any more difficult than our challenges with any other group,” Perkins said. “But it does show that we can’t define diversity only in terms of black and white.”