High school student Luis Estrada-Guzman read a poem he wrote about his desire to be a good teacher during a presentation this week at ELITE Academy.

Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

Building diversity with a new generation of teachers

  • Article by: KELLY SMITH
  • Star Tribune
  • June 24, 2011 - 11:50 PM

Nearly every one of Shantel Shorter's teachers was white when she was growing up in Wayzata. She longed for a role model in the classroom she could relate to.

"Especially when you're younger, you see someone that looks like you and you want to be like them," she said. "We don't have that example."

ELITE Academy seeks to provide those examples for students of color like Shorter, not just in Wayzata but across the state. The program gives Twin Cities high school students an intriguing look at college life and the teaching profession.

This year's academy, which ended Friday, drew 48 black, Hispanic and Asian teens -- nearly double the number it started with two years ago.

"They opened our eyes to things we wouldn't have seen," said Shorter, who attended the program last year and is considering an education career when she starts college this fall at Concordia University in St. Paul.

"Not all of us have that at home -- parents to push us -- or the support at school."

That's why organizers of ELITE, which stands for Emerging Leaders in Teaching and Education, want to expand the program. As soon as next year, they hope to extend it to younger kids and provide resources throughout the year, such as mentoring or college preparation advice.

"We realize that this isn't going to do it, [just] one week in the summer," program coordinator Shannon Lacy said.

As Minnesota grows increasingly diverse, school leaders say, so should its teachers.

About 26 percent of Minnesota's students this year are identified as black, Hispanic, Asian or American Indian. Of the state's teachers, only 3 percent were members of those minority groups.

That disparity got the attention of west metro school district leaders overseeing hiring, who asked: Why not diversify by reaching out to the next generation?

But as with many school-financed activities, funding for ELITE is uncertain.

Funding challenges

The program costs about $40,000 a year and is backed by the West Metro Education Program, East Metro Integration District, University of Minnesota, Hamline University, the students' school districts and Education Minnesota, the state teachers union.

Craig Holje, Richfield's personnel and administrative services director, said organizers are looking for other financial backers.

Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher said he'll push his organization to continue to support the program. Schools, he added, should actively recruit diverse teachers just as businesses do executives from minority groups.

"We want to make sure our teaching profession reflects our classrooms," he said. "That's one of our priorities ... increasing [the hiring of] ethnic minorities that are really great teachers."

Omar McMillan, a teacher at Richfield STEM School, said that teachers like him will also inspire more kids to consider education careers. He's the only black man among 64 teachers.

"Kids need to see people that look like them in the classroom," he said. "I think once we change that percentage, the attitude [for minority students] about school will change and the test scores will change."

Inspiring leaders

Nicholas Vang, 16, was inspired to want to teach English by his seventh-grade teacher.

This week, the Roseville teen and other ELITE Academy teens stayed in dorms at Hamline, toured the University of Minnesota, took seminars on teaching, volunteered and connected with teachers who are familiar with the challenges they face as minorities at predominantly white schools.

When Flurohn Crutch moved from a primarily black area in Ohio to a largely white community in Minnesota, he said he was struck by how teachers couldn't pronounce his name and didn't expect much from him academically.

"I didn't push myself to be the best of my abilities because it seemed like no one cared," said Crutch, now a Robbinsdale teacher. "Now I'm in a position to help others."

His story, and that of other teachers, has moved 15-year-old Jashanna Ingram of Wayzata to seriously consider teaching.

"It's really touching to hear their stories," she said. "I want to be that person."

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141

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