Illinois needs teachers, especially teachers of color

In January, the Illinois State Board of Education forecast that the state’s schools will have to hire 51,500 teachers and 3,500 administrators over the next four years. The need is being fueled by growing student enrollment, a recent bulge in teacher retirements, an increase in teachers leaving the profession and district-level initiatives such as reduced class sizes. The high-demand teaching areas remain math, science and special education.

Meanwhile, the supply line is constricting. Undergraduate enrollment in Illinois colleges of education dropped 10 percent between 1999 and 2000, the state reported, declining to a total of 22,356 for both full-time and part-time students. And in recent years, more than half of Illinois’ teaching graduates have chosen alternative careers or moved out of state to districts that offer financial and other incentives to attract teachers.

Minority teachers are in especially short supply. Last year, 40 percent of Illinois students but only 15 percent of teachers came from minority groups. Between 1995 and 2000, the percentage of Illinois teaching graduates who are people of color increased only slightly, from 15 percent to 17 percent.

“This is an issue you’re going to hear a lot more about,” says Lee Milner, spokesman for the state board. “Outside of major urban areas like Chicago, it’s definitely a problem. We’ve got a long way to go.”

Rutha Gibson, executive director of Future Teachers of Chicago/Illinois, says it’s especially difficult to recruit high-achieving students of color into teaching. “It’s a challenge, because for those students there are other fields that have a better [public] perception and pay more money.”

Blacks, Latinos, Asians and other students of color make up 90 percent of enrollment in Chicago, 43 percent in suburban Cook County and 28 percent in the six collar counties. While Chicago can boast that more than half its teachers are people of color, the teaching force outside the city is overwhelmingly white. Some school districts are trying to change that.

“There are districts, particularly suburban districts, who have said to us they want to expand the diversity of their teaching force,” reports Connie Goddard, director of field placement and partnerships at Roosevelt University.

At Chicago State University, whose education graduates are 91 percent minority, school recruiters have come from as far away as Arizona and California. Predominantly white suburban districts, like Evergreen Park and Crete-Monee, have shown up as well.

“There’s a teacher shortage everywhere, and people are looking for teachers wherever they can,” says Curtistine Miller, director of field placement.

State initiatives

The state’s budget crisis threatens to reduce the number of people of color going into teaching. The governor’s proposed budget would keep 2003 funding for the two main financial assistance programs for aspiring teachers at the same level as 2002, even though tuition is going up.

Those programs are the DeBolt Teacher Shortage and Minority Teacher Incentive scholarships. Both provide up to $5,000 per year for students who are minorities or who are studying to teach in a discipline with a designated shortage, such as special education or math.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission is pushing for a rules change that would increase participants. Currently, 30 percent of Minority Teacher Incentive money must be set aside for male applicants. However, not enough men apply, reports commission spokeswoman Lauri Thull. The commission would like to be able to use the money for female applicants.

“We want to be able to give out the money if it isn’t [applied for] by a certain deadline,” she explains.

Private efforts

The private sector has stepped in to recruit more teachers of color. Two of the more prominent programs are the Golden Apple Foundation and Future Teachers of Chicago/Illinois.

Golden Apple’s goal is to have a “majority-minority” composition each year for new students entering its Golden Apple Scholars program. Now in its 14th year, the program recruits talented students in high school, provides financial assistance and supports them throughout college. Currently, 61 percent of the 690 scholars are students of color, with a “fairly even” split between blacks and Latinos, says Dominic Belmonte, manager of teacher recruitment. (The foundation also has an alternative certification program for career-changers; 48 percent of those now participating are people of color.)

Belmonte says it’s important to offer aspiring teachers mentoring help and other support, not just financial aid.

“If you’re going to have a program of recruitment, don’t just give them a couple of bucks and a pat on the head,” he says. “Commit to help them become thoroughly prepared, to not fall prey to the cynicism and exhaustion that seems to be part and parcel of urban education.”

Future Teachers, meanwhile, starts recruitment even sooner. Its school-based clubs are open to 6th-graders. The clubs meet weekly to help students think about and prepare for careers. Between 35 percent and 40 percent of kids in Future Teachers say they want to pursue teaching as a career, Gibson reports.

So far, Future Teachers has focused on students in the Chicago public schools, but it has clubs in suburban Cook and Lake counties and plans to start clubs in Springfield. The racial disparity between teachers and students in suburban school districts makes it crucial to establish more programs outside the city, she says.

It’s also critical to provide teaching-related experience to children as early as the junior-high years, Gibson says. To that end, 7th-graders in Future Teachers clubs are encouraged to tutor youngsters in kindergarten and 1st grade. “If we can start at that age and nurture their interest in teaching, we can get them to buy into the profession,” she says. “The main thing is to get them that experience early on.”

Race and learning

The push to recruit more teachers of color isn’t meant to suggest that a student needs a teacher of his or her own race or ethnic group in order to learn. One of the few studies on the issue found that students who had teachers of the same race scored higher on reading and math tests than students who did not. However, class size was a stronger factor; students in small classes consistently scored higher than those in larger classes, regardless of their teachers’ race. The 2001 study re-analyzed data from a 1980s study on the impact of class size on student learning; it involved 6,000 Tennessee schoolchildren.

Some educators say that what counts in race is awareness and understanding. “Everyone comes from a specific culture and grows up with a particular set of beliefs,” notes Kymara Chase, a veteran African-American educator at DePaul University who works with Chicago schools. “If you’re not aware or thoughtful about other people’s culture and beliefs, you’ll have a hard time teaching them. But I don’t think it matters what race you are, if you’re trained in being aware of other people’s culture.”

Others point to the importance of role models.

“All of us need role models, to see successful [adults] from diverse groups of people,” says Milner of the state board. “That may be especially true for children of color, but it’s true for all children. It helps them to learn that diversity is a strength.”

Adam Ramirez

Becoming a role model

Adam Ramirez is now a junior in college, just a year away from achieving his high school goal of becoming a teacher-and light years from the bad grades that nearly kept him out of college.

As a senior at Hubbard High School, Adam got a string of rejection letters from colleges; he almost gave up. But then one of his former teachers encouraged him to try again, and the effort paid off. Adam landed at Roosevelt University with a full four-year tuition scholarship under the university’s STAR program for aspiring minority teachers. Now he’s earning high grades, gaining valuable classroom experience-both through coursework and on his own as a tutor-and looking forward to student teaching.

Last year, he passed the basic skills test required for teacher certification; he’s completed the general course requirements for his degree; and now he is taking education courses and learning the mechanics of teaching, such as creating lesson plans.

“A few years ago, I would not have thought I could have gotten this far,” he says. “Each year I’ve been in college, I’ve grown as a person. I’m much more confident interacting with students. I’m also starting to see what kind of teacher I will be and want to be.”

This semester, Adam is taking classes in teaching math, science, social studies and language arts. For language arts, he was dispatched to Dumas Elementary in Woodlawn to tutor a 3rd-grader and a 5th-grader in reading. “I made sure both understood what they were reading by asking them questions about what they’d read,” says Adam.

On his own, Adam has been volunteering in a classroom for the past year, taking the train every Friday from his downtown campus dorm to spend six hours at Pulaski Elementary in Logan Square.

Initially, he was sent to the school to fulfill a 30-hour tutoring requirement for his STAR scholarship. But after fulfilling the requirement, he asked the head of the scholarship program if he could continue.

The STAR program, launched in 1999 to recruit minority students from Chicago Public Schools into teaching, usually accepts only students who have at least a 3.5 grade-point average. But the program took a chance with Adam, who had a lower GPA but strong teacher recommendations, says Linda Pincham, who heads up STAR. Since then, he has averaged 3.5 or better.

“Adam was one of the first 14 kids chosen for the program,” says Pincham. “Out of the 14, only four were able to keep a 3.5. Adam is one of them. Going to college was the best thing for him. He has really blossomed. I feel good that we took a chance on him.”

Last year, Adam tutored in a 6th-grade class at Pulaski; this year, he’s in Laura Miller’s 8th-grade language arts and social studies class. It’s in Room 301, the same room number Adam was in when he was in 8th grade.

“It’s ironic that the classroom numbers are the same,” says Adam. “A lot of the kids in there remind me of my classmates, and there’s a boy there who reminds me of me. It’s almost a sign that I can make a difference.”

Adam believes he can do that best by working with middle-school students, an age group he knows is particularly vulnerable to drugs and gangs.

“I’ve seen it happen to people I know,” says Adam, who wants to keep other kids from heading down that destructive route. “Teachers helped me get to where I am now. I want to do the same thing.”

Adam also believes that good teaching involves being mindful of students’ feelings and seeing things from their perspective. A case in point: the weekly spelling test he now handles for Miller.

When he took over, Adam noticed that students’ grades were written on the front of the test papers, making it easy for classmates to see who had done well and who had not. To keep students from feeling embarrassed at a poor grade, Adam now folds the test papers so that the scores are hidden inside and only the students’ names appear on the outside. He also writes comments inside, such as “I knew you could do it. Keep it up,” or “On the last test, you did better; try to study harder.”

Miller points out another practice Adam introduced. Rather than just pronouncing the words for the spelling test, he also uses them in a sentence so kids can hear them in context. She notes that Adam also takes papers home to grade and keeps a log of the students’ grades so he can chart progress. “Usually, students are here to observe, but Adam jumped right in,” she says. “He felt he could do it.”

Says Adam, “I didn’t learn how to do this in any of my classes. I just learned how to do it on my own. I just remember what it was like when I was in school, and I try to keep that in mind when I work with students.”

Adam also has a scholarship from the Golden Apple Foundation and gained classroom experience through that organization. He spent last summer working with 6th-graders in the summer Bridge Program at Woodson North Elementary School in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood.

There, he put into practice the idea of reaching out to “problem” kids. “The first day I’m in the classroom, I observe,” he says. “I see who the troublemakers are, and I spend more time with those kids.”

At Woodson, Adam noticed a student who didn’t want anyone to help him with class work, even though he needed it. Adam persisted in reaching out to the youngster, and eventually his efforts paid off–the student allowed Adam to give him much-needed help.

While Adam seems to be finding a niche by reaching out to the most difficult kids, he’s still learning basic classroom management, something that hasn’t been covered yet in his education courses.

“When the kids [at Pulaski] are in the lunchroom, and it’s time for them to line up to go outside, they’re out of control,” he says. “They are loud, and they don’t listen. I’d like to find a common ground between shouting at them and being passive.”

This summer, Adam will complete a seven-week internship in a civil rights program sponsored by Harvard University. He initially dismissed a counselor’s suggestion that he apply but changed his mind at the last minute, writing several essays and getting three recommendations to win admittance. He’ll spend a week at Harvard and six weeks in Washington, D.C., meeting with politicians and representatives of civil rights organizations.

He says the internship will help him be a better teacher, one who is active in civic affairs and participates in the community. In his words, “I want to be a role model for my students.”

Lekena Figueroa-Forman

Behind schedule but determined

Monday through Friday, from 6:45 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., Lekena Figueroa-Forman works as a teller at Corus Bank in Lincoln Park. She then heads over to Northeastern Illinois University, where she’s a sophomore. Some nights, she’s there until 8:30.

It’s her second year juggling full-time work and school. But her motivation to become a history teacher is strong. “I love kids. I love reading. I love history,” says Lekena.

This semester, Lekena enrolled in five courses. But by March, the pace of school and work had become too intense, and she had to drop two.

“I was so tired,” Lekena says. “I had to drop physics and Latin history. I wasn’t doing too well in them. I figured I was going to get a D or an F. I’ll have to pick them up next semester.” It’s the second time she’s dropped physics. Last fall, she had a hard time understanding the instructor because he had a strong accent.

“I think I’ve dropped a class each semester, except my first one here,” she says. “To fulfill my financial aid requirements [an Illinois Student Assistance Grant], I have to take a full load, but I end up having to drop something.”

Acting Associate Dean Patricia Walsh says that pattern is not uncommon at Northeastern. “At Northeastern, it is not unusual for students to take longer to finish school. I think that is true in most colleges. Some of these kids have tough schedules.”

In the meantime, Lekena is focusing on finishing the general requirements for her degree before tackling education courses.

“Most people start taking [education courses] when they have 45 credits,” says Lekena, who will have 61 at the end of the year, just over half the 120 she needs to graduate. “It’s my choice. I want all my general courses out of the way. I’ll start taking my major [education] classes in the spring of 2003.”

Next fall, she plans to take two science classes to make up for the times she dropped physics. (Required courses for the College of Education include a biology class and a physical science class.) She’s also planning to take a math course for elementary education teachers and a fine arts course.

Lekena applied for admission to the College of Education in February and hoped to be admitted by fall. But she found out only recently that she had to pass a state basic skills test first–a test she had not planned to take until the fall.

She says the delay is not a setback, since she wasn’t planning to take any courses in education yet anyway. “I’ll find out when the next test is and take it, then apply. I meet the other qualifications, like grade-point average. You have to have a 2.5 GPA. I have a 2.8.” (Education majors must have a 2.5 to be admitted, and maintain a 2.7 in education courses.)

Lekena says she’s not worried about passing the test and points out that she passed Northeastern’s English Competence Exam, a requirement for university admission. The writing portion of the university’s exam is considered harder than the writing section of the teacher certification test, while the reading portion of the university’s exam is considered easier.

However, Walsh notes that the basic skills test required for teacher certification has been revised this year and now is more difficult. The university is offering workshops to help students prepare for the beefed-up test.

Looking ahead, Lekena already is worried about fitting student teaching into her schedule down the road, likely in the spring of 2004. “My job said I can work at night if I want,” she says. “The bank stays open until 9 p.m.” After a pause, she adds, “I’ve been thinking about this real hard, I don’t really want to work at night, but I need the job.”

Ana Salinas

Recovering from a fall

Ana Salinas struggled academically her first two years at Loyola University, failing a pre-calculus course and scoring so poorly on an English entrance exam that she had to take a remedial English course. But the aspiring teacher persevered and earned a C average by the end of her sophomore year.

This year, she started out with another problem: juggling a full load of classes with a full-time, 4-to-midnight job at a currency exchange. The workload was too much, and she failed two classes in the fall.

“I was exhausted,” Ana recalls.

And it’s no wonder, with a schedule like this: Report to work by 4; back to her mother’s home in Pilsen (near the currency exchange) by 1 a.m.; up at 6 to shower and eat; a 90-minute commute on the CTA to her dorm apartment near Loyola; classes all day starting at 10 or 10:30; back to work again at 4.

“I couldn’t keep it up,” she says. Before she knew it, she started sleeping in and missing her math and theology classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. When she realized she was failing, she approached her instructors to explain her situation, but it was too late. “It’s not because I couldn’t do the work,” she says. “I thought about dropping out of school, but I still wanted to be a teacher.”

Ana realized school had to come first. After working as an intern in the salary administration office at Chicago Public Schools headquarters on Clark Street, she was offered a part-time job that offered more money for fewer hours. Now, she’s juggling that job with a full load of five courses, including the math and theology courses she failed in the fall. So far, she hasn’t missed any classes, and she’s studying more.

“If you ask my teachers right now what grade I’d get, they’d all say A’s,” says Ana, explaining that she’s getting A’s on her papers and tests.

Ana’s mother is not surprised by her determination. “Since she was 3 or 4, she’s always wanted to be a teacher,” says Margrita Salinas. “She’d play teacher at her dresser, and she’d always ask me for chalk so she could teach her brothers and sister.”

Ana is now making plans for the summer and fall. In a discussion with her counselor, she discovered that she’ll need to take summer classes if she still plans to graduate in December 2003. She plans to accumulate more hours of clinical experience this fall by observing classrooms and tutoring small groups of students. That would put her on track to do student teaching in the fall of next year. She hopes to be assigned to Ruiz Elementary in her home neighborhood.

Loyola requires students to complete 100 hours of clinical experience before student teaching. So far, Ana has earned 40 hours tutoring small groups of children at Ruiz and Swift in Edgewater.

“One of the reasons I chose Loyola was because, unlike other colleges, you can take … education classes and get clinical hours as early as your freshman year,” Ana explains.

Jane Hunt, a faculty member at Loyola, says that in re-evaluating its program several years ago, the college decided to get students into the classroom earlier so that they would get a wider variety of experiences.

“It gives them a chance to see the big picture,” says Hunt. “They don’t see one classroom, one teacher. They get a chance to see several instructional models, a variety of kids, school settings and different grades. And this makes a difference.”

Just when things were coming together for Ana, another challenge arose: finding a new place to live this fall. Loyola is anticipating so many new students next year, she says, that juniors and seniors who live in dorms or in dorm apartments nearby have been told they have to live off campus to make room for the newcomers.

Two years ago, Loyola had 900 new students; this year, the number will skyrocket to over 1,500. Bud Jones, an associate vice president for public relations at Loyola, acknowledges that the influx of students will put a strain on housing but says the university’s student affairs office is willing to help upperclassmen find apartments and roommates.

“We certainly don’t want our kids making long commutes or trying to find apartments on their own,” says Jones.

Ana has two choices: move back home with her mom in Pilsen, which is a long commute from school, or find an apartment nearby. “I have a friend who would share an apartment with me,” says Ana. “But the problem is, a three-bedroom apartment is $1,200 a month, and I don’t know if there will be any apartments available, since other juniors and seniors will be looking too.”

She also would have to think about working additional days to pay the rent. “I have bills to pay. I have loans to pay. I’m paying off debt,” she says. “I also fell into the credit-card trap.” She adds, “I don’t ask my mom for money.”

“If I work more, I’d have to take classes at night, which I hate,” she notes.

Whatever the problem, Ana says she won’t lose sight of her dream. “The main thing is, I’m not going to give up. I’m going to be a teacher, even if times get harder. I’m going to continue.”

Bachelor’s degrees in education, 2000:

In 2000, teacher prep programs at these 12 institutions awarded 3,640 bachelor’s degrees in education: Only 812 went to people of color.

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