This article is part of an ongoing Catalyst Chicago series that will follow minority teacher candidates through their student teaching experience, job hunt and first year in the classroom.

Student teacher Michael Vargas steps confidently to the front of his middle-grades social studies class at Talman Elementary to start a lesson that will require his students to analyze the impact of events leading up to World War I.

Why did America initially decide to stay neutral, he asks?

“Because they didn’t want to get involved in what wasn’t their business,” one boy says.

“Because they were supplying both sides,” says another.

Staying out of the war was the plan, Vargas says. “We’re going to find out about why that didn’t work very well.” He points out parallels between the presidents then and now: Woodrow Wilson’s re-election slogan was “He kept us out of the war,” President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to end the war in Iraq. Geography played a role, too. Americans didn’t want to get involved in a war across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe.

But America was pulled into the conflict anyway, leading eventually to the law that created the draft for the first time. “So that’s like the jury duty of war, I guess,” one boy says.

Vargas draws another parallel to current events. A draft wasn’t necessary after the attacks of September 11, 2001, because so many Americans signed up for the now-voluntary Armed Services, including three of his friends.

Outside of class, Vargas explains that his goal as a teacher is to establish a dialogue with students and encourage them to use critical thinking skills to apply, analyze and evaluate information. He also wants them to understand history from the perspectives of different ethnic groups that are sometimes overlooked in the history books.

“When we are talking about the pioneers and the West, I make it a point to have them see it from the perspective of the pioneers as well as the Native Americans who already occupied the land,” Vargas says. “It’s more about the how and the why [of history] than the what.”

At 33, the tall, former school security guard is at ease in front of students and about a decade older than the typical student teacher about to graduate from college. Vargas is also Latino, the most under-represented group among CPS teachers. As more young white teachers flood into the district, Latinos are still just under 15 percent of the teaching force. Yet Latinos are now the largest group of CPS students, at 44 percent of the student population.

At Talman last year, only seven of 19 teachers were Latino and just one was male, according to state teacher service records for the 2010-2011 school year. Enrollment at Talman, a small, high-achieving neighborhood elementary school in Gage Park on the Southwest Side, is 96 percent Latino.

Delia Rico, education director at the Latino Policy Forum, notes that statewide, just 5 percent of teachers and school administrators are Latino. The shortage, she says, is partly due to a spiral effect: Latino students often fall off-track academically in middle school, then end up dropping out of high school or college. Some students attend community college, but never transfer to 4-year schools.

Many schools of education aren’t doing enough when it comes to preparing teacher candidates to work with minority students, Rico adds.

“Where they are falling short is in addressing the understanding of culture, the value of language, the understanding of [the] life experiences that children bring with them to the classroom,” Rico says. Student teaching is a particular concern, since placements are not necessarily in communities where teacher candidates could practice these skills.

Teachers who don’t understand children’s cultural background may not recognize the importance of having books in their students’ native language, or materials that reflect that culture, Rico says.

The Latino Policy Forum plans to work with teacher preparation programs to increase awareness of the importance of cultural competency in the teaching force, and to incorporate more coursework on English language learners for all teachers.

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Grow Your Own Teachers, the program that Vargas joined, was created in 2005 to bring more diversity to the teaching profession by supporting candidates—including parents—who live in and have ties to communities of color. In fiscal year 2012, the program received $2.5 million to fund 15 partnerships between community groups and universities to recruit and train teacher candidates. Gov. Pat Quinn recommended no increase in funding for the 2013 fiscal year.

The ability to relate to students and to draw on community resources to help them, are important components of teaching success. A strong relationship between communities and schools, which Grow Your Own aims to foster, is one of the five “essential supports” for school improvement identified by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Universities, which are generally responsible for assigning student teachers to schools, make sure the Grow Your Own candidates get assignments in their own neighborhoods.

In a small-scale evaluation of the program—covering six Grow Your Own graduates—principals reported that they performed as well as other beginning teachers in the classroom, with classroom management and teaching content knowledge emerging as strong points. The study, which was done by education research firm OER Associates, will be updated soon with data from the current school year.

The Grow Your Own teachers told evaluators that their background and life experiences help them to understand and respect students. They also reported that, as parents themselves, they value family involvement in schools.

Candidates typically take three to seven years to complete Grow Your Own, since the program targets adults—most from ages 30 to 50—who are working full-time and have families. Half of candidates have household incomes under $30,000. Given these challenges, nearly half the candidates drop out. Some are counseled out.

“We have recognized that for some candidates, Grow Your Own will not work out because they are juggling so many responsibilities and don’t have a lot of financial leeway,” notes Anne Hallett, director of Grow Your Own Illinois.

Since its launch in 2005, only 54 candidates have graduated. But by December, that number is expected to almost double, to about 100.

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Vargas grew up around 53rd and Wolcott in New City, near Gage Park. At school, his teachers were mostly white and from upper-middle class backgrounds. “They never knew where I was coming from,” he says.

His teachers talked about spending summer vacations at family cabins. Vargas’ family “was eating” but had almost no extra money.

 “I have known what it is like to live in a small apartment with 10 people,” Vargas says. “My goal is to push that these are not excuses, they are tools–reasons [to] put effort in to greater understanding and using different perspectives.”

Vargas’ family later moved—his brother had been beaten up by African-American boys in the neighborhood who mistook him for white, he says—to “a cruddy house” at 54th and Lawndale. Vargas was enrolled at Peck Elementary. Again, the teachers were mostly white, with a student body that was a mix of 2nd– and 3rd-generation Latinos who did not speak Spanish, plus African-American children who were bused into the neighborhood.

When Vargas was 20, his first child was born. He had to work, but attended Daley College, a community college that is part of City Colleges of Chicago, on and off. When he found out about Grow Your Own, he re-committed himself to his goal of becoming a teacher. Eventually, he transferred to Northeastern Illinois University and enrolled full-time.

Getting his degree was no picnic. Vargas worked full-time as a school security guard, and had to hold down a second part-time job to make ends meet. Sometimes, he worked part-time at a third job in an after-school program.

The schedule was grueling. Often, Vargas would arrive home from Northeastern at midnight four or five days a week, then have to wake up at 5 a.m. to get his three kids ready for school and go to work.

“I tell my students, I didn’t do [college] when I was supposed to, so this is the price I have to pay,” he says. “If I really want it, I have to go after it.”

Vargas credits support from his wife, who is also studying to become a teacher, and from his parents and in-laws, with helping him to get through the program.

His supervising teacher at Talman, Theresa O’Rourke, notes that Vargas’ background is an asset.

“Because of his age and experience of having worked in a Chicago public school, he’s familiar with that, as opposed to just coming in from a university,” O’Rourke says. “He has a pretty good understanding of some of the social and economic needs of the student population.”

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Vargas says he’s pleased at how much latitude O’Rourke has given him to try out his own style of teaching.

“I am basically occupying space in someone else’s room. It’s like the equivalent of sleeping on someone’s couch,” he notes. “She kind of allows me to do my own thing.”

Not everything has been easy, though. Vargas’ biggest challenge has been figuring out how to handle students who just don’t speak up in class.

“I forced them,” he says. “I told them I want to hear from someone I haven’t heard from yet. They did it in the beginning out of the need to participate. They did it later because they are starting to understand what this means.”

One way Vargas builds understanding is by helping students see the connection between the Spanish and English versions of vocabulary words. “When it derives from the same root, you’ll see the ‘Aha,’ ” he says.

Vargas’ presence has already sparked a small ripple effect. Margarita Ortiz, a parent worker in Vargas’ class, says that his example has sparked thoughts of becoming a teacher herself. (Ortiz participates in a program that provides small stipends and training for parents to work in schools.)

Ortiz rarely speaks in class, mostly assisting with paperwork and helping students who need it.

“I am scared of speaking in front of a lot of people,” she says. “[Vargas] is just starting, but he has that confidence in him. Seeing him is great motivation.”

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