New Grow Your Own program aims to diversify Minneapolis teaching corps

  • Edward Davis and his co-teacher mentor, Hafizah Jaafar, in their Lucy Craft Laney Community School classroom. - MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Taking advantage of a break in action, Edward Davis, 29, took out a large strip of lined paper to write out a question for his second-graders' afternoon reading lesson at Lucy Craft Laney Community School in Minneapolis.

Before he finished writing, though, his co-teacher mentor, Hafizah Jaafar, 35, noticed an irregular space between the first two words — enough to fit two fingers, she demonstrated.

The interruption brought a smile to Davis’ face. Jaafar’s insistence on perfect presentation — whether it be proper spacing on instructional materials posted in the classroom or taking care to place worksheets neatly on each desk — is one of many traits that makes her a standout teacher. And, despite his own tendency to overlook these little details, Davis has come to appreciate the tone of thoughtfulness and excellence that it sets for their classroom.

It’s these types of learning experiences that are preparing Davis and his peers for teaching in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Roughly halfway through its inaugural year, the Minneapolis Residency Program is preparing 25 participants to become licensed elementary teachers in an expedited period of one school year and two summers of coursework and co-teaching.

While other alternative pathways to teaching have existed for years, a couple of things set this program apart. In an effort to invest in those most likely to stay in the district, the program is limited to applicants who are currently working in the schools — as behavior specialists, substitute teachers and in other support roles. Also, in breaking down many of the barriers that keep these individuals from pursuing a teaching license, the program aims to help diversify the district’s teacher work force so that it’s more reflective of the student body.

“It’s a rigorous one-year program,” said Kathy Byrn, senior teaching specialist with the University of Minnesota’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “One of the reasons we were willing to do it in one year is because of the group we are targeting. We know they already have a record of success with Minneapolis children.”

While participants and planners continue to work out some initial kinks in the program, the prospects look promising. Residents, all of whom are college graduates, have agreed to teach in the district for at least three years. And Tiffany Moore, the lead MPS coordinator for the new residency program, says she’s already hearing from principals who are interested in bringing them on board.

Tapping into hidden talent

In a district where 66 percent of students are students of color, only 14 percent of their teachers currently look like them. This diversity gap has long been on the mind of educators, says Byrn, who has been working closely with the district for years.

A few years ago, the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota secured grant funds for its Teacher Education Redesign Initiative and one of the pillars is focused on increasing teacher diversity.

“We’ve been working on that for five years and have seen movement, but certainly not enough. This was a good leapfrog,” she said of the Minneapolis Residency Program partnership.

Selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants, the 25-member pilot cohort better reflects the student body they’re training to serve. The group is 76 percent people of color. But the diversity of this group isn’t confined to race. It’s also defined by an eclectic mix of ages, language skills and specialized experiences with MPS students.

Often, support staff at MPS schools get involved initially as parents or find an entry point because they have a language skill or cultural understanding that allows them to connect with students in a meaningful way. They may not have set out to become teachers, but eventually they started to entertain the idea of taking on more responsibility as a teacher.

Making that transition, however, simply isn’t feasible for many who are burdened with things like college debt, the need to financially support a family, and the intimidation of going back to college later in life.

“Taking those individuals from the community who desire to be teachers but haven’t found a route to do so is probably going to ensure they stay in that school system for a longer time,” said Deborah Dillon, the CEHD’s associate dean for graduate and professional programs. “In this case, we have service providers, teacher’s aids …. They have children oftentimes in the schools, and they just have not been able to step out full time without their income to become a teacher.”

Taking these factors into consideration, program planners prioritized efficiency and affordability, along with quality instruction and classroom experience, to bring some of MPS’ best kept secrets into the realm of teaching.

Program overview

The Minneapolis Residency Program has broad-ranging support. In addition to MPS and CEHD, project partners include the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals, Local 59.

The program, which is classified as a “non-conventional” pathway to teaching, has been approved by both the Minnesota Board of Teaching and the U of M's Board of Regents. It’s specifically designed to prepare residents to become elementary grade-level teachers.

The first cohort began coursework last June, and is in the midst of a full year of co-teaching inside MPS classrooms.

Each resident was placed at a new school and matched with a veteran teacher who volunteered to take on the added responsibility of full-time mentor. Each Friday, residents meet for condensed academic instruction and professional development that will continue through this summer, when they’ll complete the program.

Consistently, participants point out the advantage of spending an entire school year in front of a classroom, as opposed to the brief 10- to 12-week stint that student teachers get at the end of their program.

“The thing that attracted me most about this program was the ability to be in a classroom from start to finish,” Davis said. “Normally, a teacher is spending the first five or six weeks getting their routines down pat, which is really important. [Student teachers] don’t get to see how the class transforms, by the end of the year. I was very interested to see how one teacher can take a class and forge a community out of them.”

Upon completion of the program, there’s no guarantee that participants will acquire a teaching license, but odds are likely those who try will succeed. Only those who already hold a bachelor’s degree were allowed to participate because the program is designed to put them on course toward a master’s degree. It leaves them just six credits shy of this milestone, a gap most are happy to close by taking a couple of extra courses on their own.

As far as funding goes, this year’s cohort signed on assuming they would take on a reduced tuition load. Thanks to a chunk of last-minute grant funding — eliciting an “Oprah moment” of hugging, crying and touchdown dances, as described by residents — this financial burden was waived entirely.

Grant funds pending, logistics will look much the same for the next cohort, set to begin this summer. Based on feedback received from residents and their teacher mentors, however, program planners say a number of adjustments will be made to the coordination of coursework and in-class teaching experience. The workload itself promises to remain just as intense.

“The first year of teaching is the most stressful for anyone. If we don’t push them to their limit and make them fall into the safety net, we’re not doing our job,” Byrn said. “We’re not just preparing them to be teachers, we’re preparing them to be the best teachers.”

Residents share their stories

At Lucy Laney, Principal Mauri Melander says she’s long seen the potential in many of her support staff to become exceptional teachers. Having navigated the educational system, first through an alternative pathway to teaching as a person of mixed race herself, she’s well aware of the barriers many people of color face in doing the same. So when she first heard murmurings of the Minneapolis Residency Program, she encouraged some of her staff members to apply and welcomed the placement of residents at her school.

“I’ve been at Laney for seven years and have taken great pride in the number of [support staff], regardless of race, who’ve become teachers,” she said. “There are more people of color in that group, but I haven’t targeted them any differently. There are [just] more people of color that are in these nonlicensed positions because of standard prejudices.”

In her experience, even some of the most well-intentioned white teachers who are teaching Native American and African-American children struggle with a lack of familiarity. Compounded by conflicting feelings of guilt and apprehension, this level of discomfort prevents some of these teachers from, for example, communicating with their students in a more direct, matter-of-fact manner that they’re more apt to respond to, Melander says.

Of course, not everyone fits this generalization, she adds. The real crux of the issue is each individual’s own comfort level with race.

Asked how she thinks the two residents on site — Davis and Mary Maddox — are doing thus far, Melander says if the school has at least two openings next year, they already have “two feet in the door.”

Davis holds a bachelor’s in therapeutic recreation from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He grew up in inner-city Milwaukee and was the first in his family to attend college. Despite this accomplishment, he quickly realized how difficult it was to secure a job with such a specialized degree.

In 2012, he started working for MPS, as a special education assistant at the River Bend Education center, a self-contained K-8 school serving low-performing students with significant emotional and behavioral needs. He then transitioned into the role of a behavioral dean at Cityview, where he was surprised to witness many of the same behaviors he helped manage at River Bend.

“It really hit me at Cityview,” he said of his epiphany to pursue a teaching license to better serve students of color. “I see them having miserable years in second, third and fourth grade. What I learned very quickly is teachers get another year ... to make corrections, but kids do not get to do second grade again. If they don’t know what’s expected of them, they’ll sit back in class and goof off. Then the behaviors come, parents are called, kids are evaluated, and they end up on an IEP [for behavioral issues].”

In order to financially support his wife and newborn daughter, and continue to pay off his prior student debt, Davis was already working two full-time jobs. It wasn’t until the Residency program came along that he felt supported enough to make the leap.

Once he assumed the role of teacher alongside Jaafar in a second-grade classroom at Laney, he knew he was on the right path. Even though he realized he had a lot to learn in terms of lesson planning, routine setting and organizational skills, he also says the experience has affirmed his strengths in relationship building as well.

“I’m realizing the thing that separates you is how much you care. When the kids know you care, they’ll do anything for you,” he said, noting he’s grown in this area as well, simply by observing Jaafar’s interactions with students each day.

A science/engineering background

Mary Maddox, 52, is co-teaching alongside Jeff Cole in a fourth-grade classroom.

A Seattle native, she acquired a bachelor’s in science and electrical engineering in Texas, then got married and worked for Honeywell back home before her husband was offered a job in the Twin Cities. Here, they started a family and she chose to stay at home while their children began attending Minneapolis Public Schools.

She got involved with the district as a parent volunteer, eventually becoming a part-time substitute teacher in the very school her children attended. This transpired into a 14-year career as a reserve teacher with the district.

She says it always felt like a natural fit. Working in high priority schools, where the stakes are high, she says even her engineering background has come into play. A well-trained problem solver, she enjoys finding creative solutions in the classroom.

The inkling to pursue a teaching license had long been here, she says, but because of a variety of factors — namely the financial strain of sending her own three children through college and the intimidation factor of going back to school in mid-life — she didn’t fully commit to the task until one of her students raised his hand and asked how long she’d been his substitute teacher.

That student was Noah Branch, the district board’s first Student Representative. Maddox realized she’d essentially seen him go through the entire education system.

“It caused a lot of reflection,” she said, identifying that pivotal moment as a turning point in her commitment to following through.

The Residency Program alleviated all of the barriers that had been holding her back, she says, and she appreciated that the program seems to value the career she’d already built with the district. As a resident, she’s busy absorbing new classroom management strategies, teaching pedagogies and resources and lesson planning skills. One of the things that sets her apart for the average student teacher, however, is how well-informed the questions are, based upon her prior experiences in the schools.

“I feel super comfortable with her in the lead,” her mentor, Cole, said. “My favorite part, right from the beginning, is things you do automatically, you need to explain why. You may not even know why you’re doing it. How did that work? Why did you do it that way? It forces the teacher to think things through.”

Speaking to her deep commitment to MPS students, Maddox says she’s not put off by the challenges that have many first-year teachers looking elsewhere.

“You need to be compassionate and sensitive to [children’s needs], but you also can’t be shocked by them,” she said. “You can’t sit in that place where your compassion or sorrow becomes so overwhelming that you can’t focus on educating them, helping them move along.”

'They're more mature'

At Lyndale Community School, Principal Renee James was pleased to see a couple of her support staff get accepted into the Residency Program. While she was sad to see them placed at Whittier Elementary, she says she’s still hoping to hire them upon licensure.

Meanwhile, the five residents currently teaching at Lyndale are treated as co-teachers, rather than student teachers, she says. As such, they’re well-received by the other teachers, parents and students.

“They’re more mature,” James says of the residents. “These are people who’ve been in schools working, so they’re more familiar with the district’s policies and procedures and they have an awareness of school culture.”

“They’ve chosen this and made the commitment to Minneapolis and our families.”

Walk into Marie Olson’s kindergarten classroom during a transition period and odds are you’ll find her resident, Blaire White, 26, dancing on the alphabet carpet, leading students in a brain-break exercise.

She’s a natural, when it comes to building rapport with students. And she’s an ambitious understudy with a lot of educated questions about the craft of teaching, says Olson, who’s student taught more than 20 traditional-track teachers during her 25 years of teaching in the district.

White studied African-American studies and gender and women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After graduating in 2012, she took a job as assistant educator at Jenny Lind Elementary School. In a 2½-year span, she tacked on other responsibilities like after-school coordinator, summertime behavior specialist and lead supervisor for a competitive robotics team.

She always knew she wanted to break into education, she says. But the thought of going back to school seemed daunting.

“I never thought I’d go and get my master’s. In Madison, I really had a hard time. College was difficult for me because I felt I wasn't at all prepared,” she said. “But I decided to do this program because it was so based around having diverse teachers in Minneapolis.”

She’s a big proponent of teacher diversity, so students have role models they can identify with, even when it comes down to something as basic as skin color. It’s this passion for positively impacting students that's given her the energy to push through the intensive residency program.

“It’s so much work,” she said. “It’s not only the lesson planning, making sure you have the materials together, making sure you’re following district standards, but you’re also a mediator between students. You’re putting bandaids on cuts, you're hugging students, going to parent meetings. It’s so much on your plate. Sometimes with school and being a full-time teacher, it’s like 'Where do I begin?' ”

Eager to focus on teaching full time for at least the next five years, White says she may then look to expand her career by opening a facility that blends education and the arts for Minneapolis youth.

Seph Bloedoorn, 66, is working alongside three veteran fifth-grade teachers at Lyndale, where each of the core subjects have been departmentalized.

He comes from a long line of teachers and Harvard grads. But rather than ease into retirement after careers in law enforcement, airline dispatch, and business media creation for clients like 3M and Medtronic, he’s taking the plunge into teaching.

Looking to get his foot in the door, he took a job as a substitute teacher with the district in 2009. From there, he was recruited to become an associate educator at Northeast Middle School, where he eventually took on the title of special education assistant as well.

One day, while subbing, he helped intervene in a breakout behavioral incident, which resulted in one kid literally being pulled away. A student who had witnessed how things had been handled came to Bloedoorn and testified on the behalf of student who was going to be reprimanded, voicing her own frustrations with the discipline system.

“She was right. I understood what she was saying,” Bloedoorn recalled, his eyes welling up with tears of empathy. “I thanked her and wrote it up so they knew the whole story.”

Afterward, this eighth-grader told him, “Mr. B, we need you,” he recalls, noting he began seeking licensure the following year.

Before becoming a resident, he tried two other alternative pathways to licensure, but found that neither were a good fit due to the relative lack of diversity within the programs, poor track records with placing student teachers in the district and a lack of flexibility.

Aims to broaden students' options

Happy to be learning from a team of co-teachers at Lyndale, he plans to teach as long as possible, putting all of the technical skills he’s acquiring to good use. At the end of the day, he’s committed to reaching students who feel their options are limited before they even begin to explore what’s actually possible.

Prior to teaching at Lyndale, he recalls the time a Native American middle-school student he was working closely with asked him where he’d gone to college. Before he could reply, an African-American girl who’d overheard their conversation chimed in saying, “Well, I can tell you one thing — it wasn’t no Harvard.”

Not only was Bloedoorn struck by the irony of her assumption. But he was also deeply impacted by fact that she’d completely taken that prestigious option off the table based on the simple fact that he was a black male.

He told her that, as a matter of fact, he had attended Harvard. She could go there, too, if that’s what she really wanted to do, he added, seeing this as an opportunity to inspire, rather than retort.

“Harvard is not the only pathway. I get that,” he said. “Not all students will go to college. But the idea that you would shut that possibility off just because of your immediate circumstance …” he said, trailing off in thought. “I’m old enough and I’ve heard enough, read enough, seen enough, that I’ve come to respect the power of influence and that it impacts more than we can imagine.”

MinnPost article by Erin Hinrichs | 02/15/16