Meet the South LA couple building a literal village of Black male educators

For now it’s a grassy plot of land nestled on the border of the Pico Union and West Adams neighborhoods, but soon Peter and Didi Watts hope it will be the home for a new generation of Black male educators.

The leadership of these future teachers is sorely needed.

In California, Black boys have the lowest reading levels and highest rates of suspension of any demographic group, and Black students in general have the highest absenteeism rate. But, as soon as a Black teacher enters the classroom a clearcut shift takes place.

“If a Black male student has at least one Black teacher between third and fifth grade, their dropout rate from high school declines by 39% and their interest in attending college increases by 29%,” said Peter Watts, co-founder of the non-profit Watts of Power Foundation, referencing a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University and American University.

Watts said Black male teachers are “going to have that impact because they’re seen as a role model and an example for the students that they’re in front of, especially for Black boys.”

And yet, only about 2% of teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District are Black men. At a state level that number is worse, closer to 1%.

Watts and his wife Didi are lifelong educators with a vision to transform the life and educational outcomes of students of color by bringing more Black men into the classroom.

A key part of this plan centers upon their 4,000 square foot plot of land.

Didi and Peter Watts at the site in Los Angeles which they hope to turn into an affordable housing development for Black male teachers Tuesday, February 28, 2023. They want to encourage black men to go into the teaching profession by providing a first-of-its-kind affordable housing development in their 2-year fellowship program. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

This will be the site of Los Angeles’ first-ever housing project designed to be affordable for teachers in training, Watts said, and will be used to house fellows in the Watts of Power Foundation’s Teacher Village program.

The Teacher Village is a two-year program that seeks to eliminate the barriers Black men face to becoming teachers – these include isolation on campus, the expense of teacher exams and credentialing, lack of resources for support and advice, and being pigeon-holed into roles like PE teacher.

The fellowship offers fellows a stipend, job placement, training and support, and a personal mentor, while they obtain their teaching credential and complete their first year as a classroom teacher.

Watts and Didi are currently running a pilot version of the program with five fellows and are recruiting a second class of fellows to join the program this summer.

“I just started loving it (teaching), really being that person for the kids, because a lot of kids don’t have a male role model in the classroom,” said Jamaal Lee, a teacher at Windsor Hills Elementary School in South Los Angeles. “One of the reasons why I like the fellowship a lot is because Dr. and Mrs. Watts really show you how to be compassionate and how to truly be a teacher.”

Mr. Lee helps a fifth grade student with a poetry assignment at Windsor Hills Elementary School in Los Angeles on Thursday, February 16, 2023. Lee is one of five fellows in the pilot cohort of the Teacher Village program, an initiative to train more Black male teachers. (Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Lee said he also loves the tight-knit bonds formed among fellows, who feel like “big brothers” to him.

The long-term plan for Teacher Village is to have forty fellows at a time and house them in eight different five-unit housing projects, or “villages,” strategically located near schools where the fellows will work.

The cost of housing in Los Angeles is a challenge for many living on a full-time teacher salary. But for those who are pursuing their credential while working on an intern salary of about $35,000 it can be near impossible.

“I think that (the Teacher Village housing) would be extremely generous and I think needed as well,” said Lee, “because teachers, especially starting teachers, don’t make a lot of money and with interest rates these days, it’s getting a little crazy out here. That would definitely give people a lot more incentive to be a teacher for sure.”

Didi and Peter Watts hired Letter Four architects to develop plans for their first five-unit housing project. The couple is working to raise about $2 million to build the project with a goal of breaking ground in July 2024 and housing fellows in the summer of 2025.

Letter Four architects developed a rendering of the proposed five-unit housing project for Teacher Village fellows. (Photo courtesy of Letter Four)

During the fellowship, participants will pay about $500 a month in rent while interns and then $1,000 a month once they have their credentials.

Every fellow will receive their own 265 square-foot micro-apartment with a bed, bathroom, kitchenette and seating space, with access to a spacious communal kitchen and living room, an outdoor dining area, half basketball court and fire pit.

The layout is designed to encourage mingling in the communal spaces so fellows can help support each other through the challenging, early stages of teaching.

“If you’ve never been a teacher, if you’ve never even been exposed to a classroom setting, it can be overwhelming, especially when there’s no supports around you,” Watts said. “The impetus of us wanting to start Teacher Village was because we knew that a lot of first year educators don’t get that layer of support.”

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Feeling unsupported and isolated on campus is one of the key reasons many Black teachers leave the profession within their first few years of teaching, Watts said. This is a real problem in Los Angeles Unified School District, which lost almost 100 Black educators per year between 2016 and 2022.

Another challenge Black male teachers face is the perception that they are only suited for certain roles on campus.

“A lot of Black men who go into education end up being the PE teacher or the dean of discipline, because that’s the pigeonholed role that the education system has put them in,” said Watts. “So that’s something, again, that they have to fight against.”

Peter and Didi Watts discuss all of these challenges with fellows during monthly meetings intended to build community, discuss classroom experiences and share advice. The sessions also include training on topics not covered in credential programs like the importance of self-care for teachers and trauma-informed care for their students.

One of the superpowers of Teacher Village fellows is that they have a personal understanding of the needs of many students of color, including the trauma some of them bring into the classroom, Watts said.

“One thing that my students can say is ‘Oh, I live in Lynwood, my teacher went to school in the next city over and outside of him being from there, he’s accessible to me and understands my struggle,’” said Fontae Smith, a Teacher Village fellow and teacher at Soleil Charter Academy in Lynwood.

Teacher Village fellow, Fontae Smith, teaching a class at Soleil Academy Charter School in Lynwood on Monday, February 13, 2023. Only 2% of teachers in Los Angeles are Black men, but studies have shown that having just one Black male elementary teacher helps improve the attendance, grades and graduation rates of Black boys.(Photo by Brittany Murray, Press-Telegram/SCNG)

Smith said he loves being a ray of sunshine in his students’ days and getting them excited about learning, even if they are going through a tough time at home and start the school day in a bad mood.

The final unit in the Teacher Village training covers personal finance and mortgages. The goal is to encourage fellows to work towards buying a home in the community where they work after they’ve completed the program.

“We believe that if we can get more Black male educators in the classroom, and also living in the neighborhoods where the schools are, and owning homes in those neighborhoods,” Watts said, “that will help create community transformation through the education system.”

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