As a child, Carmen Higueros was proud of her Guatemalan roots, but she came to dread when teachers tried to pronounce her name.

A native Spanish speaker could handle it, of course, but she had just one teacher of color during her 13 years in the Anoka-Hennepin School District.

Today, the push is on to boost the ranks of minority teachers, and Higueros, an English language teacher at Birch Grove Elementary School for the Arts in Brooklyn Park, now is one of them. But she's a rarity: There are 629 Hispanic teachers across the state, making up just 1 percent of a total teaching workforce of 60,090.

Minnesota is in a "very deep hole" when it comes to providing a growing number of students of color with teachers who look like them, said Paul Spies of the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University. He's part of a group, the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota, that is coordinating efforts to double the percentage of minority teachers — Hispanics among them — from 4 percent to 8 percent of all state teachers.

"Even at 8 percent we are still in a crisis given the demographics of our student population and the need going forward in the 21st century," Spies said recently.

In about a year's time, the campaign has drawn the support of Education Minnesota, the state's teachers union, and four minority affairs councils, plus scores of schools, colleges and other institutions. But most compelling have been the voices of teacher candidates and current teachers of color — many of whom are not shy about discussing the difficulties of staying in the profession.

This year, teachers visited offices at the State Capitol and testified on behalf of an array of legislative proposals that include providing stipends to student teachers, forgiving loans to those who enter high-demand areas, and creating "grow your own" programs that help classroom aides become teachers themselves.

State Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, is chief author of a bill advancing many of the coalition's goals. As chairwoman of the Senate K-12 Finance Committee, she will have considerable sway over what makes the final cut in the Senate's school-finance bill.

Nelson reminded colleagues recently that Minnesota has the nation's largest achievement gap. Adding teachers of color is a concrete way to narrow it, she said.

Network of support

A year ago, the Educator Policy Innovation Center, or EPIC, founded by Education Minnesota, released a 68-page report recommending "grow your own" programs for candidates of color and efforts to keep minority educators in the fold as keys to easing the state's teacher shortage.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students who are culturally and linguistically diverse make up 45 percent of the nation's K-12 students, while teachers of color represent 17 percent of the national teacher workforce. In Minnesota, the figures are 31 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively.

The EPIC report cites research showing that teachers of color can produce more favorable results on standardized test scores and college-going rates for minority students than white colleagues. They can be role models and connect with students through "insider knowledge" of shared experiences and cultural backgrounds, research shows.

Retaining teachers of color, however, is another challenge.

A 2016 Education Minnesota survey showed that 22 percent of educators of color who responded said they had taken steps to leave the profession. Among the factors pushing them away were racial isolation and a dissatisfaction with administrators.

Such concerns were cited, too, by minority teachers attending a State Capitol news conference last month.

"You can hire teachers of color to do that checkmark. But, actually, do administrators want teachers of color?" said Soraya Valedón-López, of Andersen United Community School in Minneapolis. "Do they have professional development to work with teachers of color? Are they working on their own racism?"

Teachers of color in Minneapolis and several suburban districts count on one another to talk about challenges, stay strong, tough it out.

Roseville helped lead the way by giving minority teachers time to meet during the day. But the district also has budget concerns, said Roberta Hernandez Rasmussen, a Central Park Elementary teacher, and that worries her.

Verna Wong, an English language teacher at Champlin Park High, considered quitting in the past. Now she draws strength from an Anoka-Hennepin Teachers of Color Coalition that she and others formed in 2014. Recently, members met to share thoughts on how changes in the national political scene affected students.

"I think mainstream 'Minnesota Nice' has a hard time speaking about conflict," Wong said. "We're just trying to create space for conversations to happen."

Last spring, Anoka-Hennepin teachers had a happy-hour gathering with their Osseo counterparts, and they hope to have another this year.

Big efforts, small results

Osseo Area Schools has worked aggressively to increase its percentage of teachers of color. Among other things, Osseo has hired a recruiter, hosted employee racial-affinity groups and partnered with Metropolitan State University on a program giving its high school students preference for the university's teacher preparation program — and, later, full pay and benefits while student teaching.

"Even after all of those efforts," Superintendent Kate Maguire told a state House panel recently, the district has increased the percentage of licensed teachers of color by just 1 percent. Districts need state help, she said.

The Osseo district employs not one, but two Higueros family members. Together, Carmen and her older sister, Maria Higueros-Canny, also an English language teacher, attended the Capitol news conference and later testified before Nelson's committee.

Reflecting on the experience last week, Carmen Higueros said she was out of her comfort zone but thought it essential to testify about students needing teachers who are mirrors in the classroom. She is biracial and may not know what it's like to be Hmong, or black, she said. But she is doing her best to learn.

Students appreciate the effort.

At Woodbury High, senior Kamal Suleiman knows two teachers of color. One, a Muslim biology teacher, exchanges greetings of "Peace be with you" with him. She also extended him a great courtesy, he said, by perfectly pronouncing his name in full, without hesitation, on the very first try.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109