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Home » Minnesota needs more teachers of color; lawmakers, governor propose millions in spending to do it
Elvira Elfrida knows that some of her students make eye contact as a sign of respect, while others avoid it for the same reason — and she approaches everyone she meets in the hallways of St. Paul’s Central High School with an intrinsic curiosity about their cultural heritage Background.
This has helped Elfrieda gain a foothold with her special education students, which in turn has prompted her to progress in her other classes.
“If you don’t identify with their culture, you might think students are rude,” said Elfrieda, who was born in Indonesia.
As Minnesota’s student body becomes more diverse, educators and policymakers have long said it’s important to hire teachers whose life experiences reflect those of the children they teach. And several proposals before the Legislature in this session, as well as ideas endorsed by Gov. Tim Walz, have pledged millions of dollars to attract various candidates to teacher preparation programs.
Just over half of students in the seven-county metropolitan area are Black, Indigenous or other people of color, but fewer than 10% of educators are, according to figures released this week by the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.
But it’s not just an urban or suburban problem. In many other areas of the state, about one-fourth to one-third of students are black children, and nearly all teachers are white.
Both the House and Senate have introduced bills aimed at simplifying the process of obtaining a teaching license. A proposal by Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL-Minneapolis, would allocate more than $60 million a year to increase efforts to recruit and retain color teachers.
She wrote the latest update to the Teachers of Color Elevation Act, which requires the agency that licenses educators to drop a required basic knowledge exam before anyone can enter the classroom. The bill would also give the state a goal, among other things, to increase the proportion of color teachers in Minnesota schools by 2% each year through 2040.
It also relaxes the criteria for an existing program that has mostly failed to attract color teachers from elsewhere.
“We must be bold and uncompromising when it comes to reducing disparities for our Black, Indigenous and Black students,” Hasan said.
In a hearing earlier this week, Republicans recognized the need for a more diverse faculty but questioned some elements of the proposal, arguing that it could lower standards for teachers.
Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, was the author of previous versions of the bill Hasan introduced earlier this year and agrees that educators need to be more diverse. But he also wishes that colleges and universities would become more proactive.
“I think we need to take a good look at the pipeline that is producing our teachers in the state of Minnesota — our colleges and universities. What are they doing?” said Urdahl.
More ways into teaching
Walz has proposed $17.5 million for so-called “grow your own” programs, in which school districts help existing employees obtain teaching licenses.
Elfrida and Sharifa Sheyba, another St. Paul teacher, completed one such program. The St. Paul Urban Teacher Residency is a partnership between the school district and the University of St. Thomas, providing district staff with an expedited path to a teaching license.
Sheyba took a job as a teaching assistant at St. Paul’s when the eldest of her three children was nearing school age. She was spurred on by her memories as a teenage immigrant from Kenya, struggling through her two years at Champlin Park High School.
“My perception of high school was scary. I didn’t want my kids to go through the same thing,” Sheyba said.
Working with immigrant students and their families, Sheyba was inspired to earn her teaching license. But her psychology degree alone does not immediately qualify her for it. This is where the residence came into play.
“If they didn’t have a program like this or a scholarship like this, I wouldn’t have become a teacher,” Sheyba said.
During her first year in the program, she worked as a special education teacher in elementary school classes. Now Sheyba is a middle school teacher for St. Paul’s Online Middle School.
Republicans and Democrats have hailed programs like Elfrieda and Sheyba’s as a cure for the ongoing problem of a homogenous faculty.
But Rep. Peggy Bennett, R-Albert Lea, opposed the proposal, which would remove required knowledge tests administered by the state licensing agency. She’s also concerned about the last-in, first-out contract language common in school districts.
Bennett likened the state’s efforts to diversify its educational workforce to building a bucket with holes.
“The bucket is leaking and we’re losing them,” Bennett said, referring in part to the last-in, first-out policy.
Minneapolis and Robbinsdale districts exempt underrepresented groups from seniority clauses in their respective teachers union contracts. Education Minnesota spokesman Chris Williams said the statewide teachers’ union has a model language that it recommends to other counties, but also said layoffs are “not a significant factor in diversification of the profession.”
“Unsustainable working conditions, underfunded schools, unattainable job expectations and salaries that can’t pay educational debts are pushing teachers of color far more than budget cuts,” Williams said in an email.
Having experienced some of these issues as an educator, Sheyba now has her sights set on an administrative license. She wants to be a principal so she can train school staff to work with students from diverse backgrounds instead of putting the responsibility on teachers of color.
“If we don’t have diverse representation at the top, anything that trickles down to the teachers isn’t going to be representative,” Sheyba said.