To serve diverse students, school districts try to help minorities earn teaching licenses

African Immigrant Services
Lovette Wallace, Abdullah Kiatamba, Oduwa Aganmwonyi and Radious Guess, left to right, members of African Immigrant Services, before a meeting to make suggestions to the Osseo school district about diversifying their teaching staff Wednesday, July 23, 3014 in Maple Grove.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

When Abdullah Kiatamba visited the Osseo Public School District office with a group of parents, there was only one thing on their minds — to ask district officials to hire more teachers of color.

"You have 51 percent students of color and less than 5 percent staff of color," Kiatamba said. "We want to see a full representation that allows students to see that the classroom is more welcoming and that those who stand in front of the classroom look like them."

A more diverse teaching staff would solve a lot of problems for non-white students in the district, including a high suspension rate, said Kaitamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services, an organization that helps immigrants get involved in the community.

As Minnesota becomes more diverse, schools in Brooklyn Park and beyond are facing a shortage of teachers of color. Some school districts want to change that, mindful that the success of their students depends on it.

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Minnesota ranks just below the national average on the ratio of non-white teachers to non-white students, sometimes called the diversity gap. Only 3.5 percent the state's public school teachers are of African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American or Native American descent, according to the Minnesota Department of Education. Meanwhile, nearly 30 percent of Minnesota's students are children of color.

Recruiting more diverse teachers into the classroom, however, is easier said than done.

Fewer minorities go on to higher education than white students — and even fewer get a degree in education. Meanwhile, some teachers with culturally diverse backgrounds from other states are deterred by Minnesota's strict teacher licensing standards.

Some Minnesota school districts are trying to overcome those challenges.

In Minneapolis, school officials are crafting a program with the University of Minnesota to help the district's education assistants earn their teaching licenses. Those classroom aides are more likely to come from ethnically diverse backgrounds and speak foreign languages, said Maggie Sullivan, the district's human capital director.

But Sullivan said the hurdles to becoming a teacher are particularly high for educational assistants because it takes money and time to obtain a license.

"So what we're trying to do is build a program that actually keeps them at their salary, so they can do the program and their student teaching all while continuing to work with our students and make the salary they have," she said. "We're trying to eliminate the barriers."

In Austin, Minn., school officials are hoping a new teaching program with Riverland Community College and Winona State University will diversify their teaching staff.

The program is open to anyone. But Austin school superintendent David Krenz said the four-year degree was crafted with the children of Sudanese and Hispanic employees of the Hormel meatpacking plant in mind. Krenz said the immigrant children don't want to leave their close-knit families.

Given that many may not be able to afford college, an existing Hormel Foundation scholarship will sweeten the deal.

"When you look at keeping the kids here, making the program available here, it really helps support that whole feeling of 'Do I have to leave to get my degree?'" Krenz said. "No, you can stay right here and do that."

There's no requirement that program graduates eventually teach in Austin. But Krenz said he hopes family ties will keep them close.

Finding new ways to recruit and license teachers of various ethnicities could help close the achievement gap between white and non-white students, said former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, executive director of Generation Next, which aims to improve outcomes for students of color in Twin Cities school districts.

"The ability to look at the person who is the role model in that room and have at least every once in a while it be someone who looks more like you, is not only about common sense," Rybak said. "It is backed by data: having a teacher of color helps a kid of color achieve better."

That's exactly what the Osseo district had in mind when they it put together a strategy several years ago to boost staff diversity. Since last year, the district has hired 10 teachers chosen for their ability to work with diverse students.

District officials say there's still work to be done, but that they will continue to ask Kaitamba's parent group for ideas.