Perla Banegas thought about dropping out of her teacher preparation program often last spring.

Homework and bills were piling up fast. She juggled a double load of college classes with her job as a paraprofessional in the Worthington district, where she'd once contemplated dropping out as a struggling English learner.

Banegas' challenges illustrate the hurdles Minnesota faces as it seeks to recruit more educators of color. Just over 6 percent of teachers are minority members, compared with 30 percent of students. Education leaders argue one powerful solution is for schools to nurture their own graduates and support staff as they pursue educator careers.

Banegas returns to the Worthington district as a student teacher this month.

"I had to show my students that I, too, was struggling, but I was not giving up," she said.

As a middle-schooler, Banegas moved to Worthington with her Mexican mother. Banegas became the first in her family to go to college and get a two-year associate degree.

Eventually, she landed a job in her former district as a paraprofessional working with English learners. After wrestling with self-doubt, she enrolled in Southwest Minnesota State University to become a teacher.

Determined to graduate in two years, she took six classes, routinely studying until 3 a.m. She also got a part-time job as a Spanish interpreter to help keep up with expenses.

The experience was overwhelming, but Banegas is on track to graduate with honors in December after student-teaching in Worthington's alternative learning center this fall.

Banegas says support and encouragement from teachers in her district were key.

"Teachers of color have to feel they are wanted and needed," she said. "We need less words and more action."

Mila Koumpilova • 612-673-4781