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A Different Kind of Gardening: Grow Your Own Teachers

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What do you do when your teacher workforce doesn’t reflect the diversity of your student body?

It’s a question many education leaders have found themselves asking. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 50 percent of public school students identify as people of color, compared to only 20 percent of public school teachers. The consequences of this disparity are profound — research shows that when students of color have at least one teacher who shares their racial and cultural background, they perform better on standardized tests, are more like graduate from high school and more likely to attend a four-year college.  Suffice to say, the diversity gap reinforces the opportunity gap.

As to why this disparity exists, that’s a topic we could write about ad infinitum. But for now, let’s focus on what you can do to make a positive impact and close the diversity gap.

One strategy is to implement a “Grow Your Own” program and focus on cultivating a pool of diverse teachers from your own community. Some are aimed at encouraging students in your own high schools to pursue education majors and enter the teaching profession. Or, they might provide opportunities for community members or current support staff to become licensed educators.

Verona Area School District’s Grow Your Own Teacher Program

Verona Area School District chose to implement a Grow Your Own program in the face of teacher shortages and a glaring mismatch between their teacher workforce and student population. At one point, the district’s student body was over 30 percent students of color, yet only four percent of their teachers would fit the same description. At the same time, the district was only receiving four or five applicants for hard-to-fill positions, like Special Education or STEM.

Jason Olson, the Director of Human Resources, knew that research points toward better outcomes for children of color when there are more educators and role models who share their cultural and racial background. And he knew that the vast majority of public school teachers attended high schools within a one-hour drive from where they work now. Focusing on recruiting locally, from the district’s own community, could lead to a teacher workforce that more accurately reflected the student population.

A Two-pronged Approach

The administrative team at VASD decided to take a two-pronged approach to their new Grow Your Own program. One approach would focus on finding support staff who did not have a teaching certification but would otherwise be excellent candidates for a teaching role. Administrators put out an internal recruitment effort and selected a few candidates with the most potential for an 18-month alternative teacher certification program. At the end of the 18 months, they had a group of certified teachers who were already familiar with the district and had already demonstrated the key attributes district and school leaders were looking for.

At the same time, the Grow Your Own program’s second prong focused on a more long-term solution by identifying high school students with some of the characteristics of a high-quality teacher: a positive attitude and growth mindset, perseverance, adaptability, dedication and excellent problem-solving skills. The selection process for the high school students mirrors that of the teacher candidates and asks the same screener questions.

Jason says:

“Those questions aren’t as focused on lesson planning and grade books and curriculum, you know, set-up and things like that. We figure we can teach people about that. What we can’t teach them about is some of the things that are born and early formed in terms of conflict resolution, conflict de-escalation, race relations, advocacy for students, standing up to bullying, things like that.”

The district partnered with a local college to offer reduced tuition for students in the Grow Your Own program and picked up the remaining tuition not covered by financial aid or internal scholarships. As a result, those students in the program have all of their tuition paid for a bachelor’s degree and walk away with a teacher certification. The money paid by the district toward the degree is forgiven once the student has taught in the district for four years.

With a pipeline of anywhere from two to eight students in the Grow Your Own pipeline, and two students enrolling in each year, Jason calculates that the program costs about $80,000-$100,000 per year. It’s not cheap, but Jason is quick to point out that turnover isn’t cheap either. The program is a priority in the budget due to the positive long-term impact district leaders expect it to have on their teacher workforce and student outcomes.

The Results

So far, the program is poised for success. Jason believes that the initiative is helping the district take positive steps toward equity for all students in the district. The first student from the high school-focused prong of the program is about to graduate with a degree in Special Education and will take a role in special education at the district. In addition, the first cohort of internal staff members who completed the 18-month certification program have now entered the teaching workforce.

The program did lead to some unexpected results. The first year that the initiative began, the district’s diversity hiring went through the roof. Even before anyone had graduated from the program, the diversity of the district’s teacher workforce had doubled.

Jason found that people appreciated that the district was making diversity and equity a priority and attributed the incredible change to an improved reputation in the community. He said, “I really attribute that to word of mouth out in the community, that, ‘Wow, something’s different here this year, and I don’t know what it is, but I like it.’ … Like that curb cut effect where if you do something good for one particular group of people, what do you know, it ends up being a good thing for everybody.”

He added:

“What I heard was that people appreciated the honesty of saying that what we’ve been doing in the past, for our students of color in particular, hasn’t been working very well, and owning up to that. And being humble enough to put that out there, I think, resonated with a lot of people. And also acknowledging the fact that there is an important connection between students of color and teachers of color and making that a priority, I think, elevated that with a lot of our applicants — kind of elevated their thought of us as a district, and also as an employer.”

Starting a Grow Your Own Teacher Program in Your School District

Looking to start a Grow Your Own initiative in your own district? Learn more about how Verona Area School District launched their program, and the results they have seen, by checking out this episode of Field Trip, Frontline’s podcast about leadership in education.