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GRPS launches teacher cadet program as part of effort to recruit more teachers of color

Dan Morse
Innovation Central High School

Samiya Buxton, a fourteen-year old freshman at Innovation Central High School in Grand Rapids, admits she doesn't always like going to school. 

But in 7th grade at Gerald R. Ford Academic Center., Buxton caught the attention of a teacher named Ms. Kelly Sleighter.

“She saw how good I was with the children and that she could trust me,” Buxton says. As Buxton began to regularly help in Ms. Sleighter's classroom, Buxton decided that education was a good career path.

Buxton, who is African American, is now a 9th grader enrolled in a high school Teacher Cadet program, a dual enrollment partnership between GRPS and Ferris State University (FSU). Meeting in a classroom on the fourth floor of Central High, the Academy of Teaching and Learning program aims to create a pipeline of future educators. Participating students engage in field experiences in nearby classrooms and earn college credits.

The program launched last fall with 19 students and hopes to address a twofold problem facing Grand Rapids Public Schools: a chronic teacher shortage, and a need to get more teachers of color in front of its diverse student body.

According to the 2017-2018 Michigan Department of Education’s Racial Census, 32% of GRPS students are African American, 37 % Latino, 7 % multiracial; with a total minority student population of 78%.

Even with this diverse student population, 88% of the district's teachers are white, according to Nicholas Swartz, Talent Acquisition Manager at Grand Rapids Public Schools. This disparity has larger impacts on educational outcomes, as researchers continue to uncover the positive impact minority teachers have on students of color, including increased enrollment in gifted programs and higher rates of college enrollment for African American students.

One recent study found that having only one African American teacher in an elementary school increases the odds that an African American student would graduate high school and attend college.

The widening gap between the number of students of color and teachers of color isn’t unique to Grand Rapids. It persists at state and national levels. A recent state reportshows that while minority student populations are rising in Michigan, minority teacher levels are decreasing. It also shows the gap in Michigan between African American students and teachers is wider than the national average.

Lovelady Mitchell is the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director for Kent Intermediate School District. She says the reasons for low numbers of minority teachers is complex, but can stem from young people seeking better paying opportunities and avoiding the stress of teaching in a high stakes era. But she has hope.

“There needs to be more intentionality that helps students to see a path in education as viable,” she says. “We can partner with parents to help encourage interested students to pursue education. We can intentionally create ‘on ramps’ which open up the career path, asking kids broader questions, such as if they like working with kids.” 

Working to remove roadblocks

Teacher cadet Samiya Buxton, who is African American, believes there are many reasons her peers aren’t choosing teaching as a career. “Some students don’t want to be in school, so they are just looking to get a high school diploma,” she says. “Or they have kids of their own and can’t afford college tuition.”

Tony Baker, a trustee with the Grand Rapids Public Schools' Board of Education and executive director for Community Engagement at FSU who helped design the cadet program, has watched the struggle people face in gaining teacher certification, particularly adult learners who have a passion for serving youth.

Baker is pushing for universities and the state to streamline the many steps facing those who wish to get certified.

“We’re not recognizing the barriers for black and Latino students, so we need to break down the barriers earlier,” he says. “I’m convinced that if we do that, we’ll see more teachers of color in the classroom.”

But numbers in Michigan reveal that even if students of color enroll in a teaching certification pipeline, they might not end up teaching in a classroom. Research from 2010-2017 found a large decrease in Black/African American representation moving from general post-secondary enrollment to classroom placement in Michigan.

While the teaching pipeline began with 15% African American student representation, by the time they reached enrollment in college of education programs, the number of African Americans diminished to 8%, and finally to 4% actually assigned a classroom.

Mitchell acknowledges this problem and believes the solution is multifaceted.

“We know it’s a leaky pipeline, and we know we don’t retain,” she says. “We need to amplify the voices of underrepresented students and first generation students, to help them identify potential roadblocks. Also, what incentives could we create to help them finish earlier, to take out less debt? Let’s consider things like the current low pass rate of the state teacher certification test. How can we revamp and restructure?"

Creating a multifaceted effort

While the 7th grade teacher who encouraged Buxton, a freshman in the teacher cadet program, was white, she had several positive experiences with African American teachers in elementary school, when she attended school in the Kentwood School District.

“One teacher, Ms. Banks, treated all of the kids like her own children. I was new to the district and didn’t know the rules about bringing my own snack and she said ‘you can have my snack,’” says Buxton.

Since elementary school, Buxton hasn’t had many teachers of color, but she does believe it is important to recruit more.

“I feel like, for instance, when we study slavery, some students could get mad at a white teacher because their ancestors could have been slave owners,” she says. “Black teachers can connect more with students and their experiences.”

Swartz says that over the last few years, the district has focused on increasing the number of teachers of color in the district in several ways, including traveling to recruit at historically black colleges, collaborating with statewide colleges of education, and potentially, providing signing bonuses and other perks for incoming teachers.

GRPS Executive Director of Communications & External Affairs John Helmholdt says investment in an effort to “hire teachers more reflective of our student body” dates back to the 2012 GRPS Transformation Plan. Under the leadership of new Human Resources staff, the district studied recruitment efforts in other diverse school districts as well as in the private sector.

Helmholdt explains that the district learned how to showcase GRPS’ strengths and shine a light on the city of Grand Rapids. In the last year, GRPS invited potential applicants from Wayne State University to events at local venues like Brewery Vivant.

Yet Helmholdt admits that these efforts need to be supported with private fundraising and in the end, GRPS is competing for a small pool of teachers of color nationwide.

Further, like other urban districts, GRPS struggles to offer competitive salaries. Helmholdt says that the most recent contract offers a starting salary increase, as well as automatic salary increases every three years.

Cailyn Battles, another African American student enrolled in the teacher cadet program, says that she’s never had a black teacher. Yet the experiences she has had with several African American support staff showed her what might be possible.

“I think it would have helped to have at least one black teacher,” she says.

“They could help with personal problems I might have, like with friends. If you go tell a white teacher what’s going on with you, they might tell you to talk to someone else. These two support staff would really talk to you to help find a solution. They probably relate because they had a problem like that and they know how to help.”

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