Minnesota is Addressing The Lack of Teacher Diversity Through Grow Your Own Programs

Blog Post
March 19, 2021

In a nation where the teacher workforce does not match the diversity of the student population and teacher shortages have worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, states and local school districts are turning to Grow Your Own (GYO) educator programs to help address these dual challenges.

Minnesota faces a widening gap in the racial diversity between teachers and students. Only five percent of the state’s teacher workforce identifies as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), whereas 34 percent of students identify as students of color or Native American. The state’s Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board reported that the proportion of BIPOC teachers has remained stagnant in the past decade. In comparison, the percent of BIPOC students has increased from 24 percent to 34 percent and will continue to grow. The lack of teacher diversity means that students miss out on the academic, socio-emotional, and other benefits that racially diverse educators provide, especially for BIPOC students. In 2016, to help address this issue, the state launched a statewide competitive grant program to support the development and expansion of Grow Your Own (GYO) programs.

Grow Your Own teacher education programs help forge partnerships between educator preparation programs, school districts, and community organizations to support community members (e.g., parents, paraeducators, uncertified school staff, high school students) and create the opportunity for them to enter and stay in the teaching profession. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) is committed to providing all students equitable access to excellent and diverse educators. The agency is also charged with administering the state’s GYO competitive grant program, which offers two pathways for aspiring teachers.

The first pathway creates access for paraeducators and other non-licensed staff to obtain a teaching license through a teacher residency model. Research shows that paraeducators more closely align with the racial and linguistic diversity of the U.S. student population. And tapping into the skills and passion of paraeducators to develop them into teachers is vital to diversifying the teacher workforce. The second pathway is geared towards helping high school students explore teaching through dual credit or concurrent enrollment programs that allow them to earn college credits while still enrolled in high school or gain experience working with younger students.

New America recently hosted two events that provided insight into Minnesota’s approaches to GYO and its impact on local communities. The events included voices from The Coalition to Increase Teacher of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Education, and local GYO program leaders and participants.

At the first event, Approaches to Grow Your Own Educator Programs in Minnesota: Pathways for Adults, local Minnesota GYO program leaders shared insights and lessons on developing and running these programs. One of the clearest lessons was that the barriers non-traditional candidates face in entering the teaching profession must be addressed when designing the program.

Jennifer Clifden, coordinator of the University of Minnesota’s Grow Your Own Teachers Program (MNGOT), highlighted how the program structure intends to address three barriers: time, money, and stress. MNGOT enables the candidates to continue working full-time at their schools while taking hybrid courses at the U of M and fulfilling their field experience requirement at the school site where they are employed.

Current MNGOT participant and first-generation college graduate, Maciel Caridad Aquino, spoke on the issue of student debt and mentioned how if the program was not providing financial assistance, she might not have pursued teaching. She also highlighted how the program’s course schedule aligned to working professionals’ needs, with classes offered during the evenings and weekends.

However, developing a flexible GYO program that meets candidates’ needs is not the only thing school districts, institutions of higher education, and community-based organizations need to consider. Clifden mentioned that establishing a collaboration plan between program partners is essential and that in her experience, keeping consistency between partners can be challenging. To help facilitate collaboration and communication between the partners, they hold advisory meetings to bring everyone together, “We take the time to talk about who our cohort is, funding updates, our recruitment goals and planning, student teaching placement and procedures. We do the baseline things that everyone needs to be in the know about to allow the partnership to flow and be fluid.”

For many GYO candidates like Kirk Gibbs, a current MNGOT participant and Special Education Paraeducator in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the choice to become a teacher was deeply personal. He spoke about the influence that teachers had on his own life, “having that one Black teacher and playing sports, which allowed me to access Black coaches. It sent the message that I could attain higher education and have a nice life too.” However, having a Black teacher is not the reality for many Black students in the Minnesota public education system, where only 1.4 percent of teachers are Black.

Beyond intending to strengthen the teacher pipeline by supporting paraeducators and other adults in becoming teachers, the state’s GYO grant program also includes a pathway for high school students. It is important to provide underserved students at all grade levels with opportunities that deliver the message that they, too, could become teachers if they want to.

At the second event, Growing your Own Educators in Minnesota: Programs for High School Students, Dr. Margarita Bianco, founder and executive director of Pathways2Teaching, noted that students of color are not often encouraged to become teachers. Pathways2Teaching aims to disrupt that pattern by empowering 11th and 12th-grade students through a social justice curriculum that allows them to explore teaching as a potential career.

As Mariam Omar, a student in the Pathways2Teaching program shared, the Introduction to Multicultural Education course has given her space to see herself as an educator and has reaffirmed her desire to become a teacher that creates a safe space for her future students to have social justice-centered conversations.

Panelist Kleber Ortiz, a faculty member at Minnesota College who works with high school pathway programs, echoed the need to promote teaching as a career and shared his personal experience with teachers who doubted his capability to succeed in honors high school courses. He says, “We are trying to harvest something that we have not planted. We have not been telling students that they could be anything and everything they want to be, including becoming educators.”

In finding a common theme between these two events, many GYO program participants’ interest in becoming a teacher has been motivated by their lived experiences. They want to make the teaching profession more representative of the student population and become the role models they wish they had, and at the same time address racism and structural inequities in society. Now more than ever, we need social-justice-oriented teachers who believe in providing culturally responsive teaching to all students and can use their leadership to have difficult conversations in the classroom that move society forward.

Minnesota is doing the work to create educators from the community for the community, and advocacy groups such as The Coalition to Increase Teachers and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota help lead the charge. The Coalition is conducting outreach and testimony at legislative hearings related to the 2021 Increase Teachers of Color Act (ITCA), which seeks to create comprehensive systemic change, strengthen existing programs, and develop new programs to attract, prepare and retain a racially diverse teacher workforce.

If passed, the legislation would increase funding for GYO programs and expand GYO program pathways. The proposed expansion would provide grant funding for three different types of GYO grants: post-baccalaureate residencies, other undergrad and grad programs for adults, and GYO programs for secondary students besides concurrent enrollment. These efforts would make more districts eligible for funding and potentially create a more diverse group of GYO candidates with various lived and professional experiences.

While Minnesota is in the early stages of the work, the state’s GYO programs are already helping to highlight why the model is an impactful strategy for developing a more racially and linguistically diverse teacher workforce. As the GYO program participants shared, there is a need for models that can meet candidates where they are and provide them with the encouragement to see themselves as future teachers.

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Grow Your Own