Wanted: Teachers as Diverse as Their Students
Districts try ‘grow your own’ programs to get the workforce to better mirror the student body
When Adrian Galvan came to the United States at age 5, he knew little English.
He knew even less of what to expect in his new school, Lyman Hall Elementary.
Now, 16 years later, Galvan works in those same classrooms, helping immigrant children much like the one he used to be, adjust to their new lives.
Galvan is part of an experiment—a grow-your-own educator program that aims to close the gap between the number of Spanish-speaking students and Spanish-speaking educators in Hall County, Ga., where immigrants from Mexico and Central America have changed the face of the school district.
Since the late 1990s, the share of Latino students in the district has increased more than 200 percent, rising from 14 percent in 1999 to 44 percent this year.
Despite the drastic change, the teaching workforce hasn't kept up: 90 percent of the district's educators are white; only 5.5 percent are Latino.
"There's a disparity there," said R. Bradley Brown, the assistant superintendent for human resources. "We just need more bilingual people who are native speakers in our schools to help with communication, to help with reading and also to set examples."
In response, the school system partnered with the University of North Georgia to create the RISE (Realizing Inspiring Successful Educators) program, designed to prepare Spanish-speaking Latino students for careers in education. The district covers college tuition for participants and offers them paid part-time jobs as school paraprofessionals, with the goal of keeping them in the district once they graduate.
Grow-your-own programs can take different forms, but many seek to recruit residents to build a workforce that reflects the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the student population.
"The languages, the experience of immigration, whether it was them or their parents or other family members, means that they have insight into how the students they're working with are going through school and how they could improve the experience for them," said Sheri Hardee, the dean of the University of North Georgia's college of education.
To help students who may encounter financial barriers on their way to earning a teaching degree, some districts and teacher-preparation programs are pouring resources—seed money—into the efforts.
Professors at the University of Washington's college of education secured a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to train about 60 certified teachers to work in Spanish-English and Vietnamese-English dual-language classrooms in the greater Seattle area. The funding covers half the tuition for participants.
The Pionero Scholars program at Lipscomb University in Tennessee helps prepare Latino and immigrant students in metropolitan Nashville for careers in education. Students who qualify for the program earn $10,000 per year in scholarships.
"It's those young people who don't see themselves reflected in the curriculum, who don't see themselves reflected in the educator workforce or school leadership," said Margarita Bianco, an associate professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, and the executive director of Pathways2Teaching. a program designed to encourage students of color to pursue careers in teaching.
"This is the first time anybody has said to them that your experiences and the person you are is so valuable to this community. We want you to come back to share that knowledge."
As the makeup of the nation's K-12 school population transforms, Hall County is not alone in its struggle to attract multilingual teachers.
A 2016 report from the National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families found that more Latino immigrants are bypassing urban areas and instead settling in rural areas and suburban towns like Gainesville, about 65 miles northeast of Atlanta.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia reported shortages of bilingual and English-as-a-second-language teachers 2018-19, federal data show.
While Georgia is not among them, the list of states reporting shortages of bilingual teachers includes Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, where more than a quarter of the overall population identifies as Latino, and many are Spanish-speakers. Yet schools are struggling to find teachers for emerging bilingual students.
Bianco thinks she knows why.
The stigma and shame long-attached to English-language-learner status may leave native Spanish speakers who could have been potential teaching candidates feeling "less than" in school, dimming their view of the profession.
Allison Briceño, an assistant professor in the teacher education program at the San José State University college of education, said some of her native Spanish-speaking students opt out of bilingual preparation programs because they assume their command of the language is not "good enough."
"When you have a bilingual teacher shortage, that's a problem," Briceño said.
The first cohort of RISE graduates is set to return to Hall County schools as full-time teachers next fall. Some, like Galvan, are already shouldering significant responsibility in schools.
He spends three days a week working as a paraprofessional at Lyman Hall, where he rotates between traditional and special education classrooms and provides interpretation services for parents during school events and parent-teacher conferences. More than 95 percent of students at Lyman Hall are Latino.
"I know what they may be going through or the situations they may be experiencing," Galvan said. "Coming here, being an English-language-learner, I feel that I'm able to help them and relate to them and have that connection."
Administrators in the Hall County schools and the University of North Georgia are hopeful those connections will help raise achievement in the district.
On average, Latino students in Hall County are nearly two grade levels behind their white peers. Decades of research on teacher diversity show that students perform better when exposed to teachers who look like them and have similar backgrounds.
"We haven't really gotten rid of or reduced much the inequities that exist, especially impacting kids of color and their families," said Manka Varghese, a professor at the University of Washington's college of education.
"One of the ways that people are really trying to push now is this diversification."
At Lyman Hall, every kindergarten class has a bilingual paraprofessional to help students entering school with little or no exposure to English.
It's an experience Yadira Hernandez wishes she had.
"Growing up, I never had that help," she said.
When Hernandez started pre-kindergarten classes in Hall County, she spoke only Spanish. Hernandez went through school without ever having a bilingual teacher.
That experience has stuck with her. Now, as a student in the RISE program, Hernandez is able to provide the support she did not have as a child.
"I enjoy having conversations with them to make them realize, 'Hey, I know this is new for you but eventually you're going to learn it and you're going to be great at it,' " she said.
Hernandez didn't know how impactful bilingual educators were until she encountered a parent liaison in her high school that served as a guide for Spanish-speaking families who were unfamiliar with and intimidated by the U.S. education system.
"I know how much of an impact a person who speaks their language can have on them," Hernandez said.
Vol. 39, Issue 05, Pages 1, 8Published in Print: September 18, 2019, as Wanted: Teachers as Diverse as Their Students