Summer Teaching Fellowships Help Close Growing ‘Diversity Gap’

K-12 Education

Summer Teaching Fellowships Help Close Growing ‘Diversity Gap’

Author Christine Schneider
Christine Schneider

Senior Communications Officer, K-12 Education

When she was growing up in Colorado, Hannah Maldonado remembers her elementary and middle school classrooms being full of students of color. Latino kids made up much of her schools’ populations. What she can’t remember: Ever having a teacher who looked like her or her classmates.

“All my teachers were white. They didn’t reflect who I was, who I am,” says Hannah, who is Latina. “I didn’t realize that until I went to college and had to seek out the classes with professors who looked like me, or who spoke the same way that I did.”

Hannah’s experience is a common one throughout America’s classrooms. While more than half of all public school students in the country are students of color, 82% of all teachers are white.  

By 2024, it’s expected students of color will make up 56% of the entire student population, according to the Department of Education. 

That ‘diversity gap’ between students and teachers is one of the biggest challenges facing the country’s education system. Several studies have shown that students of color perform better at school – test scores improve, dropout rates decrease – when they have at least one teacher of their own cultural or racial background. 

An April 2017 study from Johns Hopkins University, for example, found that African American boys who had at least one black teacher in third through fifth grades were 29% less likely to drop out of school. 

Former Education Secretary John King said last year that there was an “urgent need” to improve racial diversity among educators and that “students of color benefit from having teachers and leaders who look like them as role models.” It is also important for white students, he added, “to see teachers of color in leadership roles in their classrooms and communities.”

This fall, Hannah will be doing her part to help close that diversity gap. She has accepted a position teaching first grade at Denver’s Barnum Elementary School, where about 90% of the student body is Latino.

Hannah Maldonado teaches students during her summer fellowship at Generation Teach in Denver.

Hannah credits her decision to pursue a career in education to Generation Teach, a nonprofit organization committed to recruiting and developing teachers of color. 

Generation Teach partners with district and charter schools to develop talented undergraduate and high school students as potential teachers through summer fellowships. Hannah completed two Generation Teach fellowships in Denver, which included two weeks of training and 60 hours of classroom teaching each summer.

Generation Teach recruits its fellows heavily from communities of color – about 75% of its fellows are people of color. About 60% are African American or Latino. 

“Our challenge is that our students do not see themselves in their teachers and leaders in their schools,” says Laura Zahn, a former teacher and principal who founded Generation Teach in 2014. 

Laura says she opened Generation Teach after seeing, during her time as a principal, how many first-year teachers were entering challenging school environments without a lot of practical experience in the classroom. She wanted to give prospective teachers a chance to see if a career in education was a good fit and bring more diversity into the profession. 

In multicultural cities like Denver, Laura says, it is possible for a student of color to go through his or her entire K-12 experience without having a single teacher of color. 

“Think about the message we are sending to our students and families when they don’t see people who look like them in positions of both power and influence in the schools,” she says. “That is not great for identity formation. But the research also shows that it affects achievement, it affects expectations of students and it affects how students are treated in terms of discipline.”

Brooklyn Batey, who completed a Generation Teach fellowship in 2015, said she had not considered a career in teaching until she saw a flier for the program on campus at the University of Denver, where she studied psychology. 

Brooklyn, who is African American, said she was “inspired” by Generation Teach’s focus on creating inclusive learning environments for students. 

“Being a teacher of color, I am able to relate to these kids. I know where they are coming from,” says Brooklyn, who is completing a Master’s degree in education and has accepted a job teaching 8th grade at a Strive Preparatory school in Denver. “I know the struggles they may experience.”

Brooklyn Batey was a Generation Teach fellow in the summer of 2015.

Brooklyn attended a private school growing up and, like Hannah, had no teachers of color. 

“It sometimes made my classroom experience a little difficult and made it hard to relate to what the teacher was talking about, especially if it had to do with the black community,” says Brooklyn. 

Generation Teach fellowships are open to students ranging from high school sophomores to college undergraduates. The program, which also operates in Boston, western Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island, hires teachers with minimum of two years of experience to serve as coaches. Coaches observe the fellows in the classroom and provide feedback every day. 

“The fellows are constantly learning and growing and also getting really specific actionable coaching feedback that they can apply right away in their classes,” says Laura. 

The organization works directly with the Denver school district and charter schools to find students for the summer program, which focuses on improving reading and math and includes instruction in engineering, social studies, speech and debate. 

“We have students above grade level, below, at grade level – representative of the general school population,” says Laura. “So we have primarily students of color, we have primarily students who qualify for free or reduced lunch. We have special education enrollment that almost exactly mirrors our local districts as well.”

Both Hannah and Brooklyn believe Generation Teach’s emphasis on coaching and prompt feedback gave them skills in classroom management and instruction that they needed to succeed immediately in their own classrooms. Hannah is currently a student teacher in Denver’s public schools, while Brooklyn is a teaching resident at a Strive Prep. 

“There was a big focus when we were fellows on just really being cognizant and sensitive to where the students are coming from and who they are, and taking that into our classrooms and embracing it,” says Hannah. 

“That was missing in my own education. I see how my students can relate to me, whether it is related to food or language, or the little cultural things that people who are not part of that culture don’t necessarily know about. That time we have to talk about things that relate to our culture creates a bond between me and my students.”

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