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Needed: More Teachers of Color

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As the student bodies of America's schools, colleges, and universities become increasingly diverse, the need to recruit teachers of color grows ever more important. We live in a society in which, already, almost one in three students in public schools belongs to a minority group. Yet, only 8 percent of teachers are African-American and only 3 percent are Latino. Demand for faculty members of color is at its highest point, and the supply cannot even begin to meet the demand.

One has but to listen to undergraduate students of color to realize some of the obstacles they face in considering careers in the teaching profession. What they hear about graduate school is particularly discouraging: There are very few professors and students of color with whom to study; in certain disciplines, the curriculum remains rigidly Eurocentric; money available for graduate fellowships has been slashed nearly in half; many capable students of color for cultural and financial reasons withdraw from graduate school after an impressive first or second year; and the alienation they face at a predominantly white undergraduate institution may be intensified in graduate school.

Unfortunately, their mentors in colleges and universities are often too burdened with teaching and research projects to give advice about the profession itself or the graduate-admissions process. Yet these students need and deserve advice and advocacy. They need to be told firsthand that they can make an immense difference as teachers in schools, colleges, or universities. They need to be told that they will have the opportunity to become role models, to nurture young minds, and to broaden the knowledge of students of every color.

According to a National Research Council report, a total of 24,721 Ph.D.'s were awarded to Americans in 1991. Of this number, African-Americans received 933, Hispanics 708, and Native Americans 128. Ironically, colleges and universities are eager to recruit teachers of color, but few make it an institutional priority to encourage their students to consider graduate study. Instead, these students often are wooed into professional and business fields by charismatic and astute recruiters. (People of color, of course, are needed legitimately in those fields as well.)

It is obvious that more students of color must be drawn into the advanced-degree pipeline. There must be a call to action among colleges and universities to recruit talented and resourceful students of color into graduate programs. Supportive mentoring systems must be created to insure greater retention of these students.

In fact, some institutions have taken the initiative to address this problem with workshops and summer institutes for bright and talented students of color. These programs--the Leadership Alliance at Brown University, the C.I.C. Summer Research Internship in the Big Ten, MESA in California, to mention but a few--already have produced outstanding results. The Institute for Recruitment of Teachers, a program founded in 1990 and based at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., is one model. It manages an "issues and texts'' workshop taught by university faculty members of color. African-American, Latino, and Native American students who have completed their junior year of college and are considering careers in teaching participate in the intense four-week workshop. As they enter the senior year, these students have the option of applying to a consortium of 25 graduate schools eager to recruit students of their caliber.

The institute prepares them for the rigors of advanced study. It stresses critical thinking and collaborative learning, fosters confidence in student intellect, teaches writing as the process for thoughtful editing of successive drafts of a paper, and creates methods for effective classroom presentations and discussions. It also counsels students about the application process. Additional dividends provided by the program are its vital network of scholars, professors, and university deans and its dedicated peer-support system. As of last fall, nearly 80 of its former students were working on a master's degree or a Ph.D. in one of the consortium universities. Sixteen former participants already have earned their master's degrees.

The institute recruits students who major in the humanities, social sciences, and education. Programs elsewhere are devoted to increasing the pipeline in other academic disciplines, notably in mathematics and the sciences. The success of these various programs suggests that there are numbers of students of color who can be recruited for graduate study and that these students will complete their degrees, if from the start there is genuine (as opposed to passing) commitment to these students and if there is an effective mentoring program in place.

The problem, however, is that many of these programs exist on insufficiently supplied oxygen tanks. Annually, their staffs have to solicit new money from foundations or from their parent institutions--already beleaguered by maintenance and operating costs and investments in fellowships for graduate study.

Once undergraduate students of color understand that they can succeed at the graduate level, enjoy research, make a difference as teachers, and that teaching can challenge and fulfill them, they will turn with greater confidence to the profession. The experience of the Andover institute is most likely no different from the experiences of other faculties in associated programs: Their students want very much to give back to their cultures and communities some of the benefits they have received through education. Teaching provides a magnificant avenue by which to achieve that goal.

If corporations and government at the state and federal levels would increase support for programs like these, the country would begin to address the critical dearth of teachers of color in American classrooms. Arming students of color with knowledge that could help them achieve in college and in graduate school is a step toward eventually increasing their numbers in the academic workforce. But a guarantee of sustained funding is essential, so that administrators of these programs can be freed from the annual chore of rattling a beggar's cup on the doorsteps of foundation offices. (The president of one esteemed program in this field claims that his program "is broke about every six months.'')

Currently, despite what they have heard about the difficulties of obtaining advanced degrees, students are seeking those degrees at great financial sacrifice to themselves. Since foundations contribute no more than 20 percent of the charitable grants awarded in this country each year, they cannot be relied upon to freight the entire costs of these programs. More corporate, state, and federal funding is imperative. If such funding does not materialize, many of these enrichment and additive programs will gasp for breath and then one by one expire.

Kelly Wise is an English instructor at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and is the director of the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers. Rafael Perez-Torres, an assistant professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, is the faculty coordinator of the institute.

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