- Associated Press - Monday, March 20, 2017

ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) - Educators like Silver Ajal know that students who are new - not only to a school, but to the country - often take a little more effort to connect with.

And that’s where Ajal, 57, who speaks seven languages, has found something as simple as greeting a student in their native language can put a student at ease, the Post-Bulletin of Rochester (https://bit.ly/2nsf25E ) reported.

“It opens the door to other things,” he said. “The more languages I can speak, the more people I can reach.”

Bridging cultural differences for those students is also key to their success here. And with those children who’ve had traumatic life experiences, Ajal can relate, as he was a Ugandan refugee who arrived in the U.S in 2004.

Since 2008 he’s been a paraprofessional in the Rochester School District, currently assigned to Kellogg Middle School, but now he’s going to school to become a teacher through a “grow your own” program in Rochester - an effort to get more teachers of color into the district to better reflect the student population.

It’s well-known that there’s little diversity in Minnesota’s struggling teacher workforce.

Last month, a state report revealed that not only do districts struggle to recruit teachers, they also have trouble retaining the ones they have - and its even more difficult when it comes to teachers of color.

Statewide, just 4.2 percent of Minnesota’s teacher workforce is non-white.

So earlier this month, legislators introduced a bill they hope will offer some relief, and get more teachers like Ajal into Minnesota schools, by providing the “tools” local school districts need to recruit and retain more teachers, including those of color. Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester authored the bill, which would provide funding for five main efforts, including mentorship programs, teacher loan forgiveness and expanding “grow your own” programs.

The bill would also fund an expansion of the Urban Educators of color program to include Greater Minnesota and make adjustments to the teacher pay system to include incentive pay for teachers who show strong results closing achievement gaps.

“We cannot continue to just talk about it,” Nelson said at the E-12 Finance Committee hearing for the bill earlier this month. “It’s time that we take some concrete steps to actually lower that achievement gap.”

With the state’s achievement gap - one of the worst in the country - and a growing population of non-white students, Nelson said it’s time to diversify the teacher workforce so that it better resembles the student population.

It’s important for students of color to have role models in school who look like them and that they can relate to, said many of the representatives from the state’s diversity councils who testified at the hearing.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm here,” Nelson said on Tuesday. “So it’s time we do this.”

The bill aims to double the number of teachers of color American Indian by 2020, so that they make up 8 percent of the teacher workforce. The other major goal: ensure 20 percent of candidates in pathways to becoming a teacher are of color or American Indian.

In the past, districts, including Rochester and Austin, have tried out-of-state recruiting, but, for the most part, efforts fell flat.

The thought: Instead of working so hard to find talent elsewhere, why not develop what’s already in your own community?

In Southeast Minnesota, “grow your own” efforts - which are attempts to train non-licensed educators or classroom aides who are already employed with districts to become teachers - are already underway in school districts such as Austin and Rochester.

Both districts are struggling with an increasingly diverse student population that isn’t reflected when it comes to their teachers.

In Rochester, just 2.9 percent of teachers are teachers of color, according to district data - far from resembling the 37 percent of the student population that identifies as non-white.

In Austin, there are just four non-white teachers among the district’s 396, according to Austin’s human resources director Mark Raymond, while students of color account for a growing 45 percent of the population.

Both districts are partnering with Winona State University. Participants are mainly people of color who worked for the two school districts as paraprofessionals, and now they’re finishing up a a two-year program to become teachers - set to graduate 12 students in Rochester and 26 in Austin this spring.

Students, who are currently paraprofessionals in the district, enter the two-year program and come out with an undergraduate degree.

In Rochester, the district has tried to make it easier for the paras to go to school and continue working by ensuring the courses are offered at night and on weekends. The district also added contract language two contract negotiations ago to continue paying former paras at their para salary, while they’re student teaching in the district.

“We know they can’t drop their income while they’re going through student teaching,” Rochester Superintendent Michael Muñoz said.

The Rochester school district also plans to offer an introductory career course next fall about teacher, to expose students to the profession.

WSU’s Tarrell Portman, dean of the College of Edcuation, said she’s excited about the bill because of the “grow your own” and loan forgiveness portions. Both are effective methods of recruiting students in small communities.

“It’s about that community and having roots in the community - and that, to me, is one of the best ways to diversify,” Portman said.

Both districts said they plan to continue their programs year after year, in hopes of adding teachers and diversity to the districts.

“We’re just very excited. No.1 that we’re giving our students the opportunity, but also the quality of the students that are going through the program is just phenomenal,” said Austin Superintendent Dave Krenz. “It’s really going to benefit everyone.”

No vote was taken on the bill earlier this month. It is being considered for inclusion in a larger education bill.


Information from: Post-Bulletin, https://www.postbulletin.com

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