Teaching Profession

Prep-School Program Opens Doors for Minority Teachers

By Karla Scoon Reid — August 08, 2001 8 min read
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Kelly Wise is a puzzler.

Known as a “door opener” for minority college students pursuing careers in education, he aggressively seeks to change the color of America’s teaching force. Despite the success of the former English teacher’s classroom crusade over the past decade, he still catches many off guard.

“When I first met [Mr. Wise], I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s white!’” Arline Riordan, the director of admissions for Boston College’s graduate school of education, confessed.

Later she added, smiling: “Sometimes, people just do what’s right.”

Over more than a decade, Mr. Wise, the founder of the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers at Phillips Academy here has helped 364 African-Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans complete master’s and doctoral degrees in education. Of those students, almost a third are working in elementary and secondary schools today, while 149 are working on their doctorates.

The institute works to demystify the application process for graduate school, matches applicants with universities, and prepares a small group of students for advanced studies during an intellectually challenging, monthlong summer program.

“We are waging war every day by recruiting people of color in our midst,” the silver-haired Mr. Wise, 68, said. “People who will be great teachers. People,” he added, pausing, “who are having their idealism threatened.”

‘It Does Matter’

It’s a battle against a crippling shortage of minority teachers.

Minority children make up about 40 percent of the nation’s elementary and secondary student enrollment, while just 13.5 percent of teachers are members of racial or ethnic minorities, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

While an estimated 2.5 million new teachers will be needed over the next 10 years, only limited resources have been aimed at making sure those teachers reflect the United States’ growing racial and ethnic diversity, said Mildred J. Hudson, the chief executive officer of Recruiting New Teachers. The Belmont, Mass., nonprofit group promotes teacher recruitment.

“There’s a general feeling that it doesn’t really matter,” Ms. Hudson said. “On the other hand, we do know that it does matter. Our teachers must look like us.”

Better known as Andover, for the Massachusetts town in which it is located, Phillips Academy often is regarded as the quintessential college-preparatory boarding school. The 450-acre campus of neo-Georgian and Federal red-brick buildings sits about 25 miles north of Boston.

While Andover increased the number of minority and international students enrolled at the residential high school in the 1960s and 1970s, it had only a few faculty members of color when Mr. Wise was named the dean of faculty in 1984.

After spending three decades in the classroom, Mr. Wise set out to “diversify the threads” of Andover, quadrupling the percentage of minority teachers from 4 percent to 16 percent in six years. He said Andover’s students needed teachers on campus who shared their cultural experience. About 31 percent of the school’s 1,069-student enrollment is made up of students of color.

But Mr. Wise soon realized that it was futile to continue to fight institutions like the University of Chicago and Stanford University for faculty members.

“We needed a program to deepen the pipeline,” he said.

Mr. Wise crafted the framework for the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers 11 years ago. It has changed little: Find outstanding college graduates and college juniors and seniors of color, and talk with them about the value of teaching while preparing them for graduate school.

The program started in the summer of 1990 with 17 students, an $88,000 budget, and six universities in a consortium. Today, the institute boasts 118 students, a $525,000 privately funded budget, and 39 participating universities. Five full-time staff members run the IRT, and six teachers conduct the summer workshop. So far, 574 students have completed the program.

In an effort to ensure stable funding, a fund- raising campaign is under way to create a $5 million endowment. The institute received a $600,000, multiyear grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to offset some of its operating costs. Andover supports the institute by providing office space and equipment, while the school’s alumni, who make up the program’s board, have been generous as well.

Students can apply to be associates or summer interns. Associates, about 90 this year, are counseled through the graduate school process by telephone, fax machines, and e-mail. All services are free, and students have access to the program’s consortium of universities, which recruit institute students and waive application fees.

Last month, 29 college juniors and seniors attended an intensive, four- week summer workshop at Andover to prepare them for graduate studies. From the moment students stepped on campus, they were put through an intellectual wringer, reading essays by Paolo Freire, John Dewey, and bell hooks.

Students delve into challenging topics, such as postmodernism, race, feminism, deconstruction, sexuality, and postcolonialism. They are exposed to essays on pedagogy and lead class discussions.

While forcing students to think critically, the program—which some call “a boot camp for graduate school"—also introduces them to the vocabulary of graduate studies.

“They’re learning to see themselves as thinkers and intellectuals,” said Tiffany M. Gill, a doctoral student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who is an institute faculty member and 1995 graduate of the program.

During one class, 14 students debated a Harvard Educational Review essay titled “Charter Schools as a Postmodern Paradox: Rethinking Social Stratification in an Age of Deregulated School Choice.”

The well-worn, vintage wooden desks creaked loudly as students shifted in their seats. Dressed comfortably in chunky sandals, flip-flops, and sneakers, they touted the benefits of charter schools, while bemoaning the impact they may have on public schools. The vocal and heated discussion continued well after class was dismissed.

“I love controversy,” said Kelechi Ajunwa, 21, a senior at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “We’re really passionate about what we talk about.”

Mr. Ajunwa, who wants to be a high school social studies teacher in his hometown of New York City, said it was gratifying to meet other dedicated and focused students.

“It’s nice to know that you’re not a freak,” he said. “There are people like me.”

To Ramon Suarez, a senior at the College of New Jersey, in Ewing, the institute is ahead of its time. With America’s growing diversity, he said, it’s clear that students will need teachers who understand the Latino perspective.

“The future of America is going to have my skin color,” he said, rubbing his arm. “It’s time to recognize that.”

Countering Stereotypes

Beyond the mechanics of filling out a graduate school application, getting familiar with graduate-level lingo, and helping students secure financial support, perhaps the institute’s greatest strength is reassuring students that teaching is a fulfilling profession.

“To me, only a fool would go into teaching,” admitted Kamissa Barry, an institute faculty member, describing his earlier view. “The lack of respect, the bad publicity. ... I didn’t have to subject myself to that.”

It was Kelly Wise who changed Mr. Barry’s mind, halting his plans to study political science or economics at Cambridge University.

Now, Mr. Barry, who was an institute associate in 1990, calls becoming a teacher the “best decision I ever made.” His mere presence as an English teacher for the past nine years at the public Boston Latin School has forced students and parents to confront racial stereotypes and biases, he said.

At Washington Irving High School in Manhattan, René I. Villicaña heard his own students discuss the importance of having teachers of color.

“They said, ‘Some of the white teachers just don’t understand,’” Mr. Villicaña, a 1996 graduate of the institute’s summer program, said. “They were right. Some things are just not understood.”

Minority teachers end up being role models not just for children of color, but all children, said Shelton M. Shepherd, a 1996 institute associate. Mr. Shepherd taught math at Burlington High School in Vermont, where he said he was one of only three black male educators in the 4,500-student district and a finalist for that state’s teacher of the year award.

“Me being inside the classroom, they see someone different than what’s portrayed in the movies and on television,” Mr. Shepherd said. “I want to share a sense of awareness with them.”

‘Can’t Miss’ Fair

While Mr. Wise said some universities were “doubtful that IRT students would be competitive” in the early years of the program, those concerns appear to have disappeared.

Many participating universities note that their best students hail from the institute. One college recruiter called the program’s recruitment fair in July a “can’t miss” event. All institute graduates are accepted to at least one graduate program, and up to 94 percent receive full scholarships.

“It’s the premier program for recruiting excellent minority graduate students,” said A.G. Rud Jr., the interim head of the department of educational studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Still, Mr. Rud said, because the program is small, it’s not going to “solve the larger societal problem” of an inadequate supply of minority teachers. Instead, he hopes the institute will become a national model.

By 2010, the institute predicts, at least 1,400 of its graduates will be working in education. About 45 percent of its graduates are seeking careers in elementary and secondary education, while the remaining 55 percent are working on doctoral degrees, intending to teach at universities.

“We’re creating a cadre of people who will encourage kids to go on to education,” Mr. Wise said.

Institute students wear their finest suits and dresses for the recruiters’ fair at the end of the program’s third week.

Before they entered a hall filled with inquisitive recruiters, colorful banners, and informational videos, the 29 students paused to have their pictures taken with the man they call “The Don” or “The Godfather.” As the camera flashes went off, Mr. Wise beamed, gathering his “kids” around him on the steps outside McKeen Hall.

“I know this sounds corny, but he’s the most passionate and sincere person I ever met,” said Clemente A. White, the director of the institute’s faculty and a professor of languages and literature at the University of Rhode Island. “I think he saw a need and he did something.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 08, 2001 edition of Education Week as Prep-School Program Opens Doors for Minority Teachers

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