Last week I wrote about Roy Jones, an inspiring visiting scholar who has had great success putting teacher right up there with point guard on the list of careers African-American boys dream about. I described how few black men go into teaching, and took note of the fact that the Twin Cities is no exception in terms of the racial disparity between student bodies and teacher corps. To countersink the nail, I noted that our districts compound the problem by laying off many of the minorities they do hire.
It took Mary Cathryn Ricker, head of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, practically no time to pen me the nicest email calling foul on me for that last assertion. Turns out St. Paul has a good track record of retaining its minority teachers, and Ricker has plans to recruit even more.
Unlike Minneapolis, St. Paul Public Schools has a long history of formal efforts to recruit a diverse teacher corps. Because those efforts go back 30 years or more, minority teachers are as well represented at the top of the union’s seniority rolls as their white peers. Consequently, they have not been lost in disproportionate numbers in the last-hired, last-fired churn of recent years’ layoffs.
About 17 percent of the district’s teachers are minorities — not nearly as high a percentage as the student body, but much higher than the statewide figure, 3.3 percent.
Long- and short-term plans
Ricker is proud of that number, but far from satisfied. Federation members plan to reach out to college freshmen and sophomores, and have begun a Future Teachers of St. Paul program in Como High that they hope to replicate elsewhere.
She has a more immediate plan, but to understand it you need to hear about a light-bulb moment she had. Ricker and her union brethren have been working for some time to reconcile the need for alternative ways of preparing and licensing new teachers with union members’ concerns about the nontraditional licensees learning on the job.
“We believe in new paths,” she said. “But we need to look parents in the eye on the first day of school and say, ‘This teacher is ready to teach your child.’ Not getting ready — ready today.”
How long should it take to train a teacher? Four years, as in a traditional college, or a few intensive months, like the New Teacher Project or Teach for America, the most prominent alternative licensure efforts? Few debates about education reform are as heated. It’s particularly painful here, in Minnesota, where thousands of teachers have been laid off in recent years.
Ricker was immersed in a discussion about whether it was reasonable to assume that everyone should graduate from high school in four years — some kids master the material in three, some need six — when it hit her: If we could treat the time the teacher spends getting trained as a variable, the constant should be what that teacher is expected to know before he or she is eligible for licensure.
“We started talking about a standards-based teacher-preparation program and suddenly our members got very interested,” she said. “They are very invested in defining those standards.”
In the spring of 2009, the union got a $150,000 planning grant from its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers, to figure out how to test the idea. Fast forward to today, and Ricker is pleased to use my error as an opportunity to announce the result.
Program will prepare teachers for re-licensure in special ed
In January, the federation hopes to launch a program to prepare teachers who already hold licenses — but presumably not jobs — to qualify for re-licensure in special education. As Ricker describes it, it has the potential to resolve multiple issues.
In addition to resolving the alternative licensure tension, it could help return laid-off teachers to the classroom, and help make so-called hard-to-staff licenses obsolete. Because the federation will recruit minorities, it could continue to diversify St. Paul’s teacher corps.
In the fall of 2011, the federation hopes to begin training its first cohort of 18-20 teachers. Among other things, they will spend a year teaching in a special-ed classroom alongside a master teacher.
“So suddenly our most vulnerable students will have two adults in the room who care about them,” said Ricker.
If all goes well, Minnesota will begin offering the alternative licensure throughout the state in 2012.