– The second-grade boy crunched on a small bag of Cheetos and twisted with energy as high school senior Ijshanita Dunigan sat next to him at a small desk in a small chair.

Patiently, she encouraged him to sit down and fill out a worksheet about a book they had just read together.

“Can you spell it?” Dunigan asked as the boy carefully printed. “And what kind of punctuation does it need?”

It was an instructive match for both: He was getting the one-on-one face time that kids his age crave. She was getting an introduction to a possible career in teaching — and earning college credit for it.

Dunigan is one of 30 students in Denfeld High School’s new Pathways2Teaching class, designed to encourage students to think critically about the history of educational inequity and show them how they can become part of the solution through a career in teaching — preferably right back in the Duluth school district.

The high school course is promoted especially to students of color. Across the state, teachers of color make up only 5 percent of part-time and full-time teachers, while about 34 percent of students are nonwhite. It’s one of many factors people point to when looking at the state’s troubling achievement gaps among students.

In Duluth, that gap is particularly wide in four-year graduation rates. In 2017, 36.8 percent of black students in the district graduated in four years, compared to 80.4 of white students.

Duluth administrators became the first in the state to sign onto the University of Colorado Denver-based Pathways2Teaching program, one of several tacks the district is taking to try to close the gap. While district leaders know that the Pathways program won’t yield quick results, they believe it’s a worthwhile long-term effort.

“A majority of teachers teach in a school that is very close to where they went to school themselves,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth said. “The best strategy for recruiting teachers is really to cultivate an interest in education in your own students.”

Social justice lens

High school students in Duluth’s Pathways class meet every day throughout the school year, where they discuss themes from their textbook, “Teaching to Change the World.”

The course studies education through a social justice lens: The book’s contents include statistics about who graduates and who doesn’t across the country, examining factors such as race, language and wealth.

There are also explanations of the history of education in the U.S. — how the system was founded and how it has and hasn’t changed over time.

Students earn three credits from the College of St. Scholastica, which has partnered with the district on the course. Unlike a typical high school course, the discussion is more analytical, students and teachers said.

It’s focused on “examining from a critical lens how these institutions might have been denying access in different ways, unintentionally and intentionally,” said Sumair Sheikh, the district’s career and college readiness specialist, who coordinates the program.

The class also discusses what makes teachers effective and students successful, said Pathways teacher Alison Wood, who also teaches science at Denfeld.

The course is designed purposefully “to bring to light a lot of the stuff that people are slowly talking about” in the area of educational equity, Wood said.

Once a week, the high schoolers visit a second-grade classroom where they work with a “buddy,” typically on literacy skills. The next day, they “debrief” by discussing their observations and examining why some second-graders might have an easier time reading than others.

Denfeld junior Tiffani Beasley said she can identify with grade-schoolers who may face challenges and sees a lot of herself in some of the kids.

“I was the one who liked to go under the table and read. It’s kind of like a little safety spot,” said Beasley. “I’ve been through a lot and I really want to help kids as much as I can.”

While she has long been interested in working with children, the Pathways class has helped fuel her ambition to become a teacher, she said.

Program funding

While Duluth was the first district in Minnesota to sign on to the Pathways2Teaching program, other districts have been making similar efforts at encouraging students to become teachers. Nine districts — all of them in the Twin Cities metro area — are offering introduction to education courses to high school students this school year through “Grow Your Own” grants from the state Department of Education.

Duluth wasn’t eligible for those grants, which stipulate that at least 30 percent of a district’s enrollment be made up of students of color. Duluth has 24 percent. Instead, the program is funded through a state education grant geared toward higher education institutions. The Duluth program this year, including startup components and teacher time, is estimated to cost about $90,000.

While the course has been popular for a first-year offering — Denfeld High School has 30 students enrolled while Duluth East has seven — a large majority of students are white. Leaders are working on recruiting more students of color next year, they said.

While critics applaud the lessons taught in the class, they say the district needs to work hard to change the racial makeup.

“If you can’t get [students of color] in there, then take those monies and put them in another program where you can get to kids of color,” said Dr. Mary Owen, a member of the Duluth Indigenous Commission and co-founder of Education Equity Alliance.

School leaders said students of all races can benefit from understanding the history of education and its implicit biases. The diversity of the students in the class isn’t only about race, they said.

All students will be better informed when someday they become parents and join school boards and parent-teacher associations, said Denfeld Principal Tonya Sconiers.

Administrators hope the program “takes root and continues for a long time to come,” Sconiers said.

Denfeld senior Caitlin Stingley said she had thought about a career in teaching but didn’t think she’d be good at it. Now that she’s in the Pathways class, she said, she has learned that good teachers find a way to connect with their students, as she has found a way to connect with her buddy.

Even in second-graders, she said, she can see differences in backgrounds making a difference in performance levels. After growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood in Duluth, Stingley said it’s now her goal to return to the district to teach someday.

“It’s crazy to see, they’re so young but already there’s such a big gap,” she said.