Margarita Bianco, PhD

Step into the teachers’ lounge at most public K–12 schools, and chances are you’ll be surrounded by teachers who look different from the student body. Despite a steady rise in the percentage of students of color attending U.S. schools, statistics show roughly 90 percent of teachers are white and more than 70 percent are women—figures that have changed little in the past decade.

That troubles Margarita Bianco, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education & Human Development.

“As a person of color, I never had any teachers throughout my public school education who looked like me,” she says, noting that throughout her undergraduate and graduate programs, and when she started teaching, she met few colleagues of color. “With each new experience, it became more apparent that I needed to do something about this.”

In 2010, Bianco teamed up with CU Denver alumna and Montbello High School teacher Nina Conley, MA ’10,to launch Pathways2Teaching, an ambitious pilot program aimed at addressing what the two see as an urgent need to boost the number of teachers of color in Colorado.

The program centers on a new elective course, Introduction to Urban Education, which offers juniors and seniors at ethnically diverse Montbello, George Washington and Martin Luther King High Schools a chance to learn about postsecondary education options, the teaching profession and how to explore the tough subject of educational justice. Students earn three college credits for taking the course over an academic year.

During the course’s inaugural semester at Montbello High School, which began in August 2010, 33 students went through an eight-week teaching methods training program and were paired with fourth-grade elementary students to teach them vocabulary.

They also had the opportunity to communicate with educational leaders of color—including Vanderbilt University scholar Donna Ford—via Skype. And, they immersed themselves in research projects exploring sticky questions such as Why is there an achievement gap between whites and nonwhites? How do drugs, teenage pregnancy and growing up in the foster care system impact a youth’s education? And, most importantly, What can be done to improve things?

“It’s piquing their awareness,” says Conley, a Montbello graduate herself. “They are starting to question things, and they are starting to ask, ‘What changes can I make?’”

In the Denver Public School District, only 19.8 percent of students are Caucasian, but 78 percent of teachers are white. Statewide, 88 percent of teachers are Caucasian. According to a 2008 report by the Alliance for Quality Teaching, the percentage of students of color statewide rose from 32 to 38 percent between 2000 and 2005, while the number of minority teachers statewide rose just 1 percent and even declined in several districts. The report pointed to research suggesting that “students, on average, learn more from teachers of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds.” (Alliance for Quality Teaching, 2008)

Luke Washington, 18, an African American student in the Introduction to Urban Education class, agrees. “I just feel like I can connect more and learn better when I have someone teaching me who can relate to my experiences,” he says.

Conley left a career in the airline industry in her mid-30s to earn her master’s degree in Administrative Leadership and Policy Studies at CU Denver’s School of Education & Human Development. In February 2011, she was honored with an Our Heroes teaching award by Stand for Children Colorado, a grassroots child-advocacy organization. She says she is thrilled to see young urban teens being turned on to the idea of a career in education.

“When I went here for high school, I never even thought about becoming a teacher. It just wasn’t discussed,” she says. “If I had taken this class back then, I would have been a teacher in 1986.”

As part of the course, the students have also been given a chance to visit college campuses and have received guidance on how to apply to universities, including a Saturday-morning college-essay-writing boot camp taught by CU Denver professor and former dean Dr. Lynn Rhodes.

Already, several students are planning their future careers as educators. Washington is one of them.

For his class research project, Washington—who has been in the foster care system for several years—explored some of the problems that surround foster care youth trying to succeed at school despite an often unstable home life.

“Sometimes foster children have had to deal with the eviction of their biological parents, becoming homeless, moving from home to home, parental substance abuse and lack of clean clothes to wear. And schools just don’t have the resources to help them,” he says. “If I were a teacher, I would ask every foster student, What is it that you really need to succeed? I would show them more support.”

Since joining the class, Washington has made up his mind that he wants to pursue a PhD in education with the hope of ultimately “helping educate others with a better understanding of what it means to be a foster kid.” He has applied to several colleges, presented his research report at the Teachers of Color and Allies Summit in November in Boulder, and is now working to plan a conference for teachers, students and community members about foster care and the educational system.

“This class has given students like me opportunities they have never had before,” says Washington. “There should be a class like this in every school.”

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