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Published: Sunday, 4/1/2007

2 black educators find a comfort zone in Bedford

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Glenn Green, right, checks the work of students Emily Blair, Katie Bollin, and Conor Morissey, left to right. Mr. Green, a substitute teacher, is the only black instructor in Bedford schools. Glenn Green, right, checks the work of students Emily Blair, Katie Bollin, and Conor Morissey, left to right. Mr. Green, a substitute teacher, is the only black instructor in Bedford schools.
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Glenn Green said he feels comfortable in Bedford because it is so similar to the community where he grew up.

Mr. Green, a substitute teacher at Bedford, is the district's only African-American teacher. He grew up in Whiteford, a neighboring suburb.

"I think many other [black] teachers may feel uncomfortable in communities like these because they grew up in all-black communities," he said. "But I am used to mostly white schools and areas because I grew up in one."

He said when he attended Central Michigan University, many of his black friends struggled to relate to white students because his friends had grown up in mostly African-American communities in the Detroit area.

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 82 percent of Detroit's population is African-American and only 12 percent is white.

"They were feeding into the stereotypes on the other side," he said. "They just weren't used to being around white people."

But he said he hopes his students at Bedford will learn early on that "people are just people" regardless of skin color.

"Hopefully some of the stereotypes they might have come into the school with won't leave with them because Ms. [Rhonda] Gant and I were there."

Whiteford's population is 95 percent white, according to the 2000 census. Bedford's African-American population was so small in 2000 - 143 people - that the census listed the percentage as zero. The community is Toledo's largest suburb, with 31,126 people, according to the 2005 census update.

Rhonda Gant, an assistant principal at Bedford High School, has dealt with racial threats since she came to Bedford High School in 2000, but she emphasizes that the majority of the district's students have been welcoming.

"In talking with students, many have thanked me because they have little or no experience with diverse backgrounds at all, and they seem to like getting to know people that are of other cultures," Ms. Gant said.

"The kids are saying that they like that exposure because they don't get exposed to diversity in this community, in Bedford at all," she said.

Mr. Green said he does what he can to show students he is just a man.

"I walk amongst [the students] and let them get to know me so they realize there is no difference between black and white," he said. "Because for some people, I am the only one they are going to see for a while."

Bedford High School Principal Dennis Caldwell acknowledges there is barely any racial diversity in his staff, but he said it is a product of the community.

"Bedford is not diverse. You can't really use Bedford and diverse in the same sentence," he said. "I just hire the teachers that are out there. I look at resumes, and if you're good, I'll call you in for an interview."

"I take the best people, regardless of color," he said.

But Ms. Gant said that policy is not enough. She said if districts looked harder, they could easily find minority candidates who are as qualified for the job.

"It is about a plan and a commitment. When you are looking for something, you will find it," she said.

Mr. Green said hello to Brandon Harper, 16, an African-American sophomore at Bedford, as he entered the classroom:

"How you doing, Mr. Harper?"

"Pretty good. How 'bout you, Mr. Green?"

"Good. Good."

He was the only student to exchange as many words with Mr. Green before class, but Brandon maintains he doesn't really see color.

"I don't care either way [if a teacher is black or white]. I'm not racist," he said.

His friend Dan Sarnowski, 16, who is white, said he wasn't sure what the word "diversity" means.

"Is diversity color?" he asked. "Nah, I don't see what difference it makes."

Mr. Green remembers when he was in Whiteford and the only African-American teacher on staff was Patricia Sullivan. Ms. Sullivan, still the only minority faculty member, has taught special education at Whiteford since 1973.

"I knew she was there. And I remember feeling good that she was there, but I never had a class with her because she taught special ed," he recalled.

But he said despite the area's homogeneity, he always felt comfortable there. It was his home.

"I knew I was different, but kids didn't treat me any different. I was just a kid. I wasn't playing the black kid; I was just playing the kid," he said.

Bedford senior Josh Carter, 18, acknowledged that as a white teenager in Bedford he hasn't had much contact with diversity.

"Before [Mr. Green], I had never had any teachers [who] were another race, and I know after high school I will be around people [who] are lots of different races," he said.

And Bedford sophomore Alex Chowdhury, 16, who is half Middle Eastern and half Hispanic, said she thinks a person's unique background or upbringing and cultural roots can enhance the learning environment.

"I think it's kind of fun to have more diverse teachers because they kind of put their own thing into it," she said.

"Like different cultures," her friend, Sarah Wagner, 16, added.

"And maybe because of their backgrounds they could use different techniques to help us learn," Alex concluded.

Some students did not believe it would matter.

"I think it would be the same whether a person is black or white," Bedford freshman Sean Molter, 14, said. "It's just a person. People are people."

Ms. Sullivan agreed with Sean. She said she has never had any problems during her long tenure at Whiteford.

"I believe that a diversified staff would be a benefit to the entire school system, but what is of more importance is the quality, integrity, character, and professionalism of that teacher," she said.

But she does acknowledge the need for diversity.

"In the society as it is today, you have to be able to get along with all cultures of people," she said. "And if you grow up in a society that has cultural diversity, it is an advantage. It allows you to cope with things socially that you will need to throughout your life."



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