Recruitment & Retention

How ‘Grow-Your-Own’ Programs Are Helping Recruit Teachers of Color

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 08, 2021 6 min read
Diverse team builds a geometric shapes structure together

Joselyne Garcia-Moreno always loved and excelled at math. But attending an all English-speaking high school could have squelched this passion for Garcia-Morena, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household and spent most of her formative years attending school in Mexico.

“I was really nervous. I could barely have a conversation in English,” she said of her early high school days. Having only one female math teacher of color throughout her K-12 education didn’t help inspire her, either.

But Pathways2Teaching, a grow-your-own program designed to encourage students of color to become teachers in their home communities, did.

Garcia-Moreno, who identifies as Latina, enrolled in the program after transferring as a 10th grader to Denver’s Abraham Lincoln High School, where most students qualify for free or reduced lunch and identify as Hispanic. Through Pathways2Teaching, Garcia-Moreno was introduced to the teaching profession and earned a paraprofessional certificate, which landed her a job as a para at her alma mater while she worked towards her bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Colorado Denver. The 21-year-old now is studying for her master’s degree in teaching.

“I want to go back to Lincoln to teach. I want to complete the cycle,” Garcia-Moreno said.

Garcia-Moreno’s story reads like an example out of a grow-your-own program manual—that is, if the teacher recruitment strategy had one.

Grow-your-own programs have been around for years, but they vary in scope, target audience, and goals. Some identify potential teaching candidates as early as high school; others recruit existing paraprofessionals and career changers to become certified teachers. And while many grow-your-own programs aim broadly to increase a state or district’s local pipeline of future teachers, others work specifically to enhance the diversity of the next generation of educators.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and America’s subsequent racial reckoning, this latter goal has become more urgent, especially given the dearth of teachers of color educating the nation’s diverse student body. In the nation’s K-12 public schools, 16 percent of teachers are Black or Latino, compared to an estimated 41 percent of students, according to a recent Education Trust report.

Education Week caught up with some key players within the grow-your-own movement to learn more about strategies they’re using to inspire future teachers of color.

Margarita Bianco’s personal education journey informed her professional decision to launch Pathways2Teaching, which helps introduce high school students of color in urban and rural communities to the teaching profession. In high school, Bianco, who is Latina, realized there were no teachers at her school who looked like her, a reality that didn’t change as the doctorate-level trained professor moved through graduate school.

“Never having someone who looked like me or represented my culture, it was really isolating,” said Bianco, an associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development at the University of Colorado Denver.

How to recruit and engage diverse high school students in teacher-prep

Bianco sought to change these dynamics when she started Pathways2Teaching in 2010. The growing program has enrolled an estimated 1,500 students and spread beyond Colorado to Minnesota, Tennessee, New York, and North Carolina, via a few different recruitment strategies. Bianco reviews surveys that ask students whether they’re interested in becoming a teacher, reaching out to those who respond in the affirmative.

She also engages survey respondents who don’t declare an interest in any specific profession.

“I want to grab hold of those people and show them this option,” Bianco said. She also recruits students identified as natural leaders who, in her words, “are using their leadership skills in inappropriate ways.”

Too often, Bianco said, students in lower-income, lower-resourced schools are underestimated for their future potential, which can set up a cascading cycle of low expectations and remedial work.

“These students need to be challenged,” Bianco said.

She also insists that students not be held to a minimum grade point average in order to enroll in the program.

“That’s a deal breaker for me,” said Bianco. “I want these young people to know that they are the perfect teachers for their community. They come to this with such a wealth of knowledge.”

Bianco knows her strategic approach can’t stop with recruitment. She has designed the curriculum to cover material that matters to its participants. One of the program’s courses, for instance, requires students to identify and research issues in their community related to education, such as the impact of a strong police presence in schools.

“That’s the key to attracting students of color; it’s all about social justice and equity and being a role model and a change agent,” Bianco said of the program, whose student demographics are as follows: 66 percent Latinx, 18 percent Black, 9 percent white, 3 percent Asian, and 6 percent Native American.

Why looking for local candidates is a smart strategy

Grow-your-own program leaders say that recruiting community members to become teachers is both a practical and effective long-term solution to increasing educator diversity.

“Whether it’s students or bus drivers who want to become teachers, it’s OK. You want to look at who’s right in front of you,” said Joshua Starr, CEO of PDK International, a professional association for educators that oversees Educators Rising, a community-based model for recruiting teachers that has a presence in every state plus Washington, D.C., and official agreements with departments of education in 31 states. Among the program’s participants, 52 percent are people of color.

Other grow-your-own leaders agree with Starr’s emphasis on recruiting potential teachers within the communities that need them the most.

“You have to think about all the different places people gather—churches, etc.,” said Belinda Flores, principal investigator and founder of the Academy for Teacher Excellence at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Flores says both research and anecdotal evidence shows that teachers hired from within low-resourced communities tend to teach long-term in the communities that originally hired them. “Their commitment is stronger,” Flores said.

Identify, and knock down, the barriers to success

But, oftentimes, obstacles stand in the way of their teaching career aspirations, Flores says.

Finances are a big concern for many grow-your-own recruits, she explains, and the availability of grants has diminished in recent years. “There needs to be more commitment by state and federal governments to enhance grow-your-own programs,” she said. “There needs to be loan forgiveness.”

Flores points to other obstacles facing grow-your-own candidates. She says paraprofessionals often struggle to balance employment and family needs with coursework toward certification.

In addition to practical challenges, Flores says, recruits tend to struggle with imposter syndrome, asking themselves: Should I really be in this program? It’s a common phenomenon that occurs especially when you don’t see others like you in similar positions, Flores says.

Ongoing support can help candidates overcome feelings of self-doubt and other obstacles in their path to teaching.

Garcia-Moreno credits Pathways2Teaching’s emphasis on self-advocacy for allowing her to succeed in her journey toward becoming a math teacher.

“It taught me to seek out the help that I need, and not be afraid to ask those questions,” she said. “If I needed something, I would just call Dr. Bianco or send her an email.”

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