Most of the teachers at the Mass are white. Lowell is trying to change that

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One morning this past March, students in Kendra Power’s Grade 12 English class entered the classroom and took their seats.

I asked them a question. Who wants to be a teacher?

The response was tepid: two wobbly hands and only one yes.

Bauer, a Lowell High School teacher for more than 16 years, saw something happen firsthand across the countryLack of interest in teaching, partly motivated by low wages. And students of color, especially, see less of themselves in the teachers they have.

Roughly 9 in 10 teachers in Massachusetts public schools are white, even though students of color make up nearly 44% of the state’s total enrollment, according to state data. Bauer said this means that many do not see themselves reflecting on their teachers and may not consider teaching as a future career.

She said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” “It’s as if they don’t see it as a career path.”

Lowell is the sixth largest public school district in the state. Its students are among the most diverse. Approximately 38% are Hispanic, 28% are Asian, and 8% are Black.

However, many of these students rarely see a teacher who looks like them. District officials say seven out of 10 Asian students in Lowell Public Schools did not have a single teacher of the same race during the 2020-21 school year. This gap was similar for Hispanic and Black students.

State data shows that 90% of full-time teachers in the district are white, as of the 2021-2022 school year. Black, Asian, and Hispanic teachers make up 1%, 4%, and 5%, respectively.

This makes students like Elizabeth Zahn, a young Asian American student at the school, stop and think.

“All of my teachers are white,” she said, “including any staff and support staff that I know of.”

When students of color have teachers of color, they pay more personal attention to school and have stronger plans for after graduation, according to Study the Institute for Learning Policy Released in 2018.

District educators have teamed up with the University of Massachusetts Lowell to offer college credits and potential scholarships to high school students interested in teaching. It is a push for students to dream of becoming teachers.

This is the first year of Lowell High School’s Education Pathway, also known as the “Grow Our Own” program. Last fall, 13 students from the secondary group studied in the elementary classrooms. They read the stories to the students and developed lesson plans.

Zhan got the chance to lead a first-grade class at Bailey Elementary School as a student teacher. I was surprised by the experience – in a good way. One of the students looked a bit familiar.

“She was wearing the same little outfit I was wearing, white stockings and little pigtail braids,” said Zhan. “I kind of saw myself in her as a student, so I hope she saw herself in me.”

One of the goals of the program is to encourage students of color to return to their communities as educators. Another goal, program leaders said, is for participants to learn how to lead classrooms where all students feel included.

Lowell High student Lorena Minikowski wasn’t always interested in teaching as a career. Her mom runs a nursery school at home, so she’s used to the hustle and bustle of young children.

“I’d like to wake up in the morning and I’d just like to hear kids crying when I went downstairs,” Minikovsky said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t want to deal with this all day.'” This is madness . “

Junior Lorena Minicowski At Lowell High School.  (Jesse Costa/Wbur)
Junior Lorena Minicowski at Lowell High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But last summer, Minikowski got a job working with young students at McAvinnue Elementary. In the fall, she joined Lowell High’s inaugural education course and took a kindergarten class.

One of her students spoke only Portuguese, so Minikovsky, who is Brazilian, spoke to him in his native language.

“I was teaching the whole class, and he. So, it wasn’t like he was detached from the rest of his class. “He was, like, engaged in the same activity as… the other students.”

Teachers build connections

The new teaching path program is not the only motivation from Lowell Public School officials for trying to promote teacher diversity. The staff visited historically black colleges and universities in Atlanta to try to recruit students to work in Lowell. A separate effort focuses on retaining newly appointed Color Educators with leadership and mentorship opportunities.

Ralph St. Louis, a Haitian-American biology teacher who has been at Lowell High for the past four years, is part of the fellowship. He said some students do a double take when they see him in the hallway.

“I’ve stood outside my classroom, and I’ve had students like to stop and stare and be like, ‘Are you a teacher here?'” said St. Louis. “Really?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s my class.” “

Teacher Ralph St. Louis In A Biology Class At Lowell High School.  (Jesse Costa/Wbur)
Teacher Ralph St. Louis in a biology class at Lowell High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Students rarely see a black science teacher in school. St. Louis emphasized how he managed to build strong relationships. During a hallway interview with WBUR, students stop to say hello.

St. Louis said, “We really developed these supportive relationships between teachers and students and they kept following up with me year after year. And I was like, Wow, this is something they really needed, they wanted to find representation in the classroom.”

St. Louis said he had influential teachers long before he even considered the field of education. They provided a space for him to explore his skills in class. He tries to recreate a similar nurturing environment for his students.

Lowell’s “Develop Yourself” initiative is new, but there is strong participation. Of the nine Lowell High seniors who graduated from Pathway this year, three are students of color. And in the row behind them, 16 of the 24 participants are students of color.

Stacy Agee Szczesiul is Associate Dean in the College of Fine Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at UMass Lowell. She helps oversee the partnership and said it opens the door to giving students more agency over K-12 education.

“We feel that if we can do this early, they will understand that they are coming into a profession that will validate them, and that will not continue to work against them,” Schizole said.

Back in the classroom, Bauer asked her students to imagine how they would feel if they entered the classroom in the third grade and saw themselves standing at the front of the room.

“I definitely get this lazy smile spreading across their faces,” she said. “So I say, why don’t you?”