Despite a growing body of evidence about its importance, Puget Sound-area public-school districts still can't seem to build a diverse teaching corps.

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Treneicia Gardner is counting down from five, signaling her kindergarten and first-grade students to hurry to the classroom rug for a math lesson.

Most have no problem making it. The only holdup is a line of kids hoping to grab a quick hug before bounding to their spots.

It’s a blend of control and connection even the most experienced educator might envy, and Gardner is a first-year teacher at a diverse, high-poverty school.

To be sure, her effectiveness stems from contagious energy, creative lesson planning and superhuman patience. But the 28-year-old says she has an extra advantage: Gardner, like many of her students, is African American.

“Absolutely, I feel like it makes a difference,” she said, reflecting at lunchtime on a recent school day at Seattle’s Leschi Elementary. “As a minority woman, things that I have experienced in my life are the same things they’re dealing with. It brings our relationship closer … It increases their comfort level and their confidence.”

Gardner’s experience illustrates an issue that’s gaining attention across the country. Research is increasingly indicating a link between teacher diversity and minority-student achievement.

Yet despite that growing body of evidence around a long-known problem, local public-school districts still can’t seem to recruit and retain teachers of color in any significant way.

Today in Seattle, 57.3 percent of students come from minority backgrounds while just 20.7 percent of their teachers do, according to statistics provided by Seattle Public Schools. The divide is equally stark for the district’s most struggling minority groups — African-American students outnumber black teachers by nearly 3-to-1; for Latinos, the ratio is more than 4-to-1.

Those numbers, while unimpressive, are the envy of school districts around the Puget Sound region, most of which are even less successful at attracting minority teachers. Only a handful of area school districts invest significant resources in teacher diversity.

And despite Seattle’s success relative to its neighbors, the city compares poorly to similar-sized urban areas across the country, according to a Seattle Times analysis.

If anything, it’s falling further behind.

District officials, aware of the problem, recently spent 10 months crafting yet another strategy for recruiting more minority teachers. The plan, released this week, includes three components: advertising open positions to ethnic community groups, supporting a local foundation focused on the issue and scheduling meetings with community leaders to brainstorm more ideas.

Most area school districts don’t have even that much of a formal plan for increasing teacher diversity.

Officials say they’re limited by state budget cuts, laws against affirmative action and, most of all, a lack of candidates.

Advocates acknowledge there are few easy or cheap solutions, but argue that districts are not taking the problem seriously enough.

“If the district were really committed, there are many solutions,” said Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, a Seattle University professor who attended a community meeting at Coe Elementary last month to lament the city’s lack of teacher diversity.

“We’re in the 21st century. You can no longer say that there are no people of color who are qualified.”

Mounting evidence

Brittany Green enjoyed her first few months at Seattle’s Franklin High, but the African-American student soon realized she was having trouble connecting with the mostly white and Asian teachers at the school.

The next year she transferred to Rainier Beach High, where she felt more able to voice her opinions and connect with the faculty.

One teacher, an African-American language-arts teacher named Makela Stewart, stood out for her ability to understand and inspire black students who previously had behavior problems.

“If it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be here right now,” said Green, now a junior studying criminal justice at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Minority students like Green benefit from seeing people that look like them in professional positions, said Julie Nelson, director of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights. That point has been reflected in several national studies released over the past few years.

One by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that having a teacher of the same race increased student test scores by about 3.5 percent. Other surveys have found that it’s good for all students, regardless of race, to interact with a diverse group of teachers.

It’s not all about race, of course. All teachers must be trained in cultural competency, or understanding and interacting with diverse cultures, said Jeanne Harmon of the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, a Washington state nonprofit.

But if there are not even a few minority teachers around, students of color can feel isolated, Harmon said.

Judy Coryell, a counselor at Mercer Middle School in Seattle, said the effect can be profound.

“I think the psychological impact is that — ‘I don’t really belong here,’ ” she said.

Worsening problem

Elnora Hookfin remembers when things were different.

Now an assistant principal at Roosevelt High School, Hookfin arrived from Louisiana in the early 1970s after meeting Robert Gary, a prominent administrator who personally recruited more than 20 black teachers to the area. Thanks in part to those intense efforts, African Americans made up more than 10 percent of the Seattle’s teaching corps for most of the 1980s.

For decades, Hookfin has watched those numbers dwindle for Seattle and other local school districts.

“It’s depressing,” Hookfin said. “It’s almost a 360-degree turn. We’re back where we started. It’s probably worse than when we started.”

Hookfin blamed the decline on a failure by district leaders to make the issue a priority. Maintaining diversity requires vigilance, she said.

She pointed to the elimination of Seattle Public Schools recruiters who scoured the country for minority teachers, especially at historically black colleges.

Seattle School Board President Michael DeBell said the district ended that practice because its high cost didn’t justify the few candidates that were identified. In general, officials have determined the problem is outside their control, DeBell said.

“There’s not a lot we can do,” he said.

Other Puget Sound-area school districts seem to have adopted the same attitude. While Federal Way and Renton each run education-career programs within high schools, officials at most other districts said they view teacher diversity as primarily the responsibility of teacher colleges.

Kenneth Zeichner, the director of teacher education at the University of Washington’s College of Education, acknowledged his program could do better at recruiting students of color (although at 30 percent minority, it’s more diverse than any district teaching staff in the state).

He attributed the trend to demographic and economic factors, including that many potential candidates can’t afford the cost of programs required for teacher certificates. The minority students that can afford it may be more attracted to more prestigious fields, he said.

The minorities that make it to the teaching profession often don’t stay long because they don’t feel supported or respected, said Olga Addae, president of the Seattle teachers union.

“It’s a cycle,” she said.

Potential solutions

When retired Seattle Mariners slugger Edgar Martinez and his wife, Holli, explored creating a charity organization, they kept hearing about the importance of one topic: teacher diversity.

In 2008, the couple founded The Martinez Foundation, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to minorities seeking to become teachers and supports them once they get into the classroom.

The organization has already formed partnerships with several area school districts, including Seattle Public Schools (it’s the foundation mentioned in the district’s new recruitment plan).

Holli Martinez says there’s a lot more work to do.

Long term, society needs to better prepare minority students for college and relentlessly promote the education field as an option for them, she said.

Other advocates recommended simpler moves like more closely tracking teacher diversity, providing pathways for the heavily minority field of instructional assistants to become teachers and supporting alternative teacher-certification programs. Others suggested reviving out-of-state recruiting.

None of those ideas are guaranteed to be effective, and most will require significant resources that are unlikely to come in a time of budget cuts.

But advocates say they will keep pushing officials to look for innovative solutions.

In the meantime, teachers like Gardner, whose path to the classroom was aided by a Martinez Foundation scholarship, say they’ll continue to make whatever difference they can in individual classrooms — one hug at a time.

Seattle Times staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.