Juan Perales might be part of a solution to a problem plaguing Minnesota school districts — a lack of racial diversity among teachers despite a growing number of students of color.

Perales, a 27-year-old information technology technician for Austin Public Schools, plans to enroll in a “grow your own” teacher preparation program set to launch this fall at Sumner Elementary in Austin, a town that has seen an influx of students from Sudan, Mexico and the Karen region of Burma, their families drawn by work at the Hormel plant. Like other rural Minnesota districts, Austin has struggled to attract teachers of color.

“Here in the Midwest the pool of teachers of color just isn’t there,” said Austin Superintendent David Krenz. “We’ve tried recruiting the traditional way, but ultimately we decided to look at the pool that’s in our own back yard.”

School districts, education reform groups, and teaching colleges and universities are desperate to make a dent in a stubborn problem. About 96 percent of the state’s teachers are white, compared to 70 percent of the student population.

Racial diversity is increasing in schools at a rate of 1 percent each year, and state education leaders believe hiring more teachers, reserve teachers and other professionals of color might be one way to budge the persistent achievement gap between white and minority students.

“We know that we must invest in teachers who share the same background and identities of the students they teach,” said Deborah Dillon, an associate dean at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. “Research shows that students benefit when this happens.”

Gov. Mark Dayton included $25 million in his latest budget proposal to aid efforts to find teachers of color and those who teach in hard-to-fill areas like special education. Among other things, the money would be used for grants and a loan forgiveness program.

Many schools have responded to the shortage by looking inside their own ranks. For example, the U and Minneapolis Public Schools are seeking state Board of Teaching approval to train the district’s educator support professionals — almost half of whom are minorities — to become licensed teachers.

Winona State University has partnered with Riverland Community College and Austin Public Schools to launch the program that will train Perales, who likely won’t have to give up his IT job while he’s a full-time student.

A racial divide

Lawmakers this year got a sobering report from the Minnesota Department of Education that only 4 percent of state teachers were not white.

Of the 58,211 public school teachers, about 900 are Asian, 600 are black, 500 are Hispanic and 250 are American Indian, according to 2014 numbers.

While the lack of teacher diversity has been a problem for some time, the numbers provided a stark reminder of racial disparities inside Minnesota schools.

“It’s apparent that we need a comprehensive pipeline approach to ensure that our teaching professionals mirror the diversity of the student population,” said Madaline Edison, executive director of Educators 4 Excellence-Minnesota, a group pushing for teacher policy changes.

Education reform organizations are among those who believe that changing the state’s licensing requirement for out-of-state teachers might diversify the teaching ranks. But a proposal before lawmakers to relax licensing requirements faces heavy opposition from the statewide teachers union, teaching colleges and the Minnesota Board of Teaching.

Few teaching colleges in Minnesota are waiting for a legislative fix. They have thrown considerable resources at trying to attract, train and retain aspiring teachers of color, frequently turning to scholarships and grants.

Minneapolis Public Schools is on the verge of offering a teacher “residency” program in collaboration with the U and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.

As envisioned, district support professionals with four-year degrees would undergo a year of intense classroom training and coursework and would receive a $24,000 stipend from the district. Of the district’s 1,500 support professionals, reserve teachers and other professionals, almost 200 are bilingual and more than 600 are nonwhite.

“With these elementary support professionals, many of them share the background of the students they ultimately hope to teach,” Dillon said. “They are incredibly invested in the district and its students.”

Looking within in Austin

Located next to Austin’s biggest cluster of affordable housing, Sumner Elementary has seen some of the biggest increases in student diversity in the district.

The elementary has responded in a number of ways. It has trained its teachers how to be culturally respectful, has sunk resources in improving in language instruction and relies heavily on liaisons to new immigrant families.

But sometimes it’s not enough.

Principal Sheila Berger said she recently had a new substitute teacher who was so overwhelmed that she lay down behind her desk, did yoga poses and meditated. The students were not the problem, Berger insisted.

“It was just a very different world than the one she had come from,” Berger said. “We need teachers with real-world experiences.”

That’s why Austin is looking to Perales and others for its next crop of teachers.

Its teacher training program will offer instruction at Riverland for the first two years and at Sumner another two. Candidates will take classes taught by Winona State staff and will also spend time in the classroom, co-teaching with the school’s elementary teachers.

“This is a wonderful experience for students,” said Bruce Ramsdell, co-director of Winona State’s Center for Education Innovation. “When they enter this program there’s no candy coating. … They will learn what needs to be done.”

The program is designed to help teacher candidates overcome two big obstacles to licensure — accessibility and cost. The Hormel Foundation provides scholarships for many low-income, minority Austin graduates to attend Riverland while Sumner provided the classroom space partly so teacher candidates won’t have to travel to Winona or Rochester.

“The fact the program is being offered here in Austin, and not having to travel to, say, Rochester, is just a huge, huge benefit,” Perales said. “It would be very, very difficult for me if it weren’t.”

Perales, whose family moved to Minnesota for work when he was a child, hopes to become a science teacher. He had initially wanted to be a physical therapist, but decided he wanted to work with children after being an after-school program coordinator in Austin.

“The trajectory kind of changed, but I’m very happy with the direction it’s going,” he said.