Company Town: Why Kansas City schools are building housing for teachers.

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

Alexandria Millet loves teaching because she loves learning.

As a young girl, Millet remembers the teachers that challenged her, expecting her to achieve. 

More specifically, it was her Black teachers who had confidence in her, she says. She could see herself in them. Their faith in her abilities was life-altering, and it inspired Millet to become a teacher, too.

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

“They were invested in my success,” she says. “I am invested in my students’ success in just the same way. My students know they can achieve if they are given the proper tools. They also know in my classroom there are no ‘outs’. They say, ‘You get it, Miss Millet. You don’t let us get away with anything!’”

Millet, who is 24 years old, came to Kansas City from Milwaukee to be an AmeriCorps volunteer. Unlike many teachers who find the demands of the job not commensurate with the pay, Millet decided to stay. She now teaches 10th grade English and journalism at KC’s Central High School. A deciding factor in her choice was a Kansas City School District program that offers low-rent housing for teachers, specifically Black educators.

“I make about $48,000 a year, so having affordable housing is extremely important,” Millet says. According to Zillow, the average monthly apartment rental in Kansas City is $1,437. 

Millet lives in a duplex near her school with two other teachers and pays $400 a month in rent as part of a partnership between the Kansas City Public School District and the nonprofit organization Teachers Like Me. The nonprofit, founded by Dr. Trinity Davis, a former district teacher and administrator, was specifically created to help recruit and retain Black teachers like Millet by making it affordable and therefore possible for them to live in the district where they work.

According to researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University, Black students who have at least one Black teacher between kindergarten and third grade are 13 percent more likely to graduate from high school and 19 percent more likely to enroll in college. Those who had two Black teachers were 32 percent more likely.

“The district and Teachers Like Me have made it possible for me to live close to my school in a home I can afford so I can stay in the profession I love,” Millet says. 

The recruiting and retention of Black teachers specifically is a priority for both the district and Davis. Years ago, Davis began looking at data that indicated how few Black teachers there were in area schools, and she wanted to diversify her profession.

“The data indicated that only 2.8 percent of teachers in the whole metro were Black and that Black teachers were leaving at a higher rate than any other group,” Davis says.

Davis founded Teachers Like Me to create a support network for Black teachers, many of whom leave college with debt. “How can we help them stay in the classroom?” Davis asks. “If I didn’t have my parents’ backing, I would have left the profession.”

That schools with a majority of Black students had so few role models seriously concerned Davis. “A third of all metro area Kansas City schools from Olathe to Park Hill don’t even have one Black teacher on campus,” Davis says.  “And there are no historically Black colleges and universities nearby for Black students to attend.”

When Davis was teaching first grade, at the beginning of each year she would hear students say, “We have a Black teacher!” as if they were shocked. “But they shouldn’t be,” she says. “This is Kansas City, Missouri.”

Prior to founding Teachers Like Me, Davis studied data on what elements created high-performing schools and found that teachers need both financial support and professional development.

Financial support for housing comes from the program’s partnership with the Manheim Community Land Trust, one of many organizations helping meet the challenges of creating affordable housing by partnering with nonprofits. MCLT’s directors Scott Johnson and Doug Shafer have acquired 16 vacant lots that are leased to Teachers Like Me for $50 a month each. The duplexes like the one Millet lives in house 12 teachers. Currently, fundraising is focused on building the next four duplexes.

“We also have Money Mondays for financial advice where we talk about credit scores and why they matter and about proper banking procedures,” says Davis, whose program is currently helping 40 young teachers. “We emphasize how to save and budget and to achieve home ownership.” 

The second essential element in retaining teachers is to provide professional development. “Because they have affordable housing, teachers don’t have to get a second job,” Davis says. “They can come in on Saturdays and review student data and plan lessons while being paid a stipend of $25 an hour.”

The dedication the teachers have to Teachers Like Me has inspired Davis to continue to expand the program. “We just sent a recruiter to Mississippi State to recruit nine teachers, all of whom are excited about not only the housing but also the professional support.”

Davis believes having Black teachers live in the community they serve is also essential to building a strong foundation for the education of Black students.  “We want our teachers to vote on school issues,  to see their students in the neighborhood,” Davis says. “We want to find Black students in high school who want to be teachers, work with them and send them to UMKC and other universities to get their degrees.” 

Nicholas Papageorge, assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University, emphasizes the importance of Black children having a Black teacher. “The role model effect seems to show that having one teacher of the same race is enough to give a student the ambition to achieve—for example, to take a college entrance exam.”

Millet already knows that her students view her as a role model, much like she viewed her teachers as role models. “They make the assumption that I care; they tell me the stories of their lives,” she says.  “And I have heard some of them say, ‘I want to be a teacher like you.’”  

Honest Conversations

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

Dr. Trinity Davis, founder of Teachers Like Me, recalls the negative reaction to the No Child Left Behind Act, a federal provision that supported standards-based education reform based on the premise that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals could improve individual outcomes.

“People hated it,” says Davis, a former administrator and educator in the Kansas City School District.  “But it put a laser focus on the group that was not performing at grade level, and that was Black children. Even students who came to school speaking another language could reach grade level because of English language classes.” 

Photography by Jeremy Theron Kirby.

However, as a Black teacher during the No Child Left Behind era, Davis says she “could have honest conversations with Black parents. I would tell them exactly what their children had to achieve, and I could send books home in baggies so that their parents could help them. Since the parents and I were about the same age, we connected, and they could totally understand what their children had to do. At the end of the year, all my students tested at grade level. And then I was accused of cheating because it was rare to have an entire classroom of Black students pass.”

When Davis told her kids that no one believed their test scores were accurate, they asked, “Because we’re Black?” Two weeks later they were tested again, and they actually did better than when Davis had tested them.

Key Phrase: Housing For Teachers.

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