Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-Waterbury) made a strong case for increasing educator diversity in remarks at the 25th celebration of the Alma Exley Scholarship Program.
Speaking via video, Rep. Hayes congratulated the 2020 and 2021 Alma Exley Scholars, Marquis Harris and William T. Saunders II, who both hail from her hometown of Waterbury.
“Together,” she said, “these two young men represent a great hope that the educators and leaders of our schools in the communities of highest need come from those very same communities.”
Mr. Harris and Mr. Saunders are good examples of that. Mr. Harris, a graduate of the University of Saint Joseph, plans to teach at his alma mater, Wilby High School, in the fall. Mr. Saunders teaches at Achievement First Hartford High School, with 100 percent students of color, while pursuing his master’s degree in the Relay Graduate School of Education.
“Far too many of our students go through their entire K-12 academic careers without ever having a teacher of color,” Rep. Hayes said. She added that it is a top priority for her in Congress to help build diversity in the education workforce and incentivize students to become educators.
“Teachers of color help to close the achievement gaps for students of color,” she said. “They improve attendance and increase aspirations of attending college.” Studies have shown clear evidence that a diverse teacher workforce improves students’ academic achievement, especially for students of color, she added.
Legislation To Boost Diversity
“That’s why I introduced the Save Education Jobs Act and the Teacher Diversity and Retention Act,” she said, “to protect against job losses and increase the number of classroom teachers and specialized instructional support personnel in schools and to build out the educator pipeline at HBCUs (Historical Black Colleges and Universities) and minority-serving institutions.”
“I introduced these bills because they will expand teacher-preparation programs to provide dual certification in special education, social and emotional service competencies and behavior management so that teaching candidates are better prepared to meet the needs of students in all communities.”
She said increasing educator diversity is especially important in Connecticut, where just 10 percent of educators are people of color compared to nearly half of our state’s public school students. What’s more, she said, over 27 percent of schools in Connecticut have no teachers of color while 17 percent of students in the state have no teachers of color in their schools.
A Sense of Urgency
Encouraging students of color to become teachers has never been more urgent than during a time of unprecedented learning loss due to Covid-19, when schools need all the tools they need to reach students, she said.
“Looming layoffs from strained municipal budgets threaten to further exacerbate teacher shortages and challenge efforts to attract and retain a diverse teacher workforce and compound the generational consequences of this crisis,” she said.
“At a time when we are at a reckoning for racial justice and the ever worsening problem of the teacher shortage crisis is looming, every investment in the pipeline is essential,” she said.
“So thank you for providing this scholarship to our most needed students and the most deserving candidates,” she said. “Thank you again to Marquis and William for your commitment to the education profession, and congratulations again on this scholarship. We need you so bad in the educator pipeline.”
A program called Educators Rising is among the many initiatives underway in Connecticut to encourage more people of color to become educators.
EdRising starts early, providing coursework and internships to high school students in 14 school districts across the state. A majority of the participants are students of color.
Since the program started several years ago in New Britain, many graduates are in college and some have become teachers.
Leaders Speak at Annual Conference
More than 550 high school students attended EdRising’s first annual Connecticut State Conference, a virtual gathering, on March 31. Dr. Shuana Tucker, chief talent officer at the State Department of Education, hosted the conference. Sponsors of the conference — CCSU, AFT, New Britain AFT, CEA, CABE and Educational Testing Service/Praxis – funded the awards for the students.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who received an Alma Exley Scholarship in 1998 as a student at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU), welcomed the students. In panel discussions, students described how EdRising has affected their educational journeys.
Dr. Cardona was among the public officials and educational leaders who encouraged the students to become teachers. Among them were Gov. Ned Lamont; Rep. Jahana Hayes of the Fifth Congressional District; State Sen. Douglas McCrory and State Rep. Bobby Sanchez, co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Education Committee; and Acting State Education Commissioner Charlene Russell-Tucker.
‘We Need You’
Gov. Lamont, who has supported a number of educator-diversity initiatives, called teaching “an incredibly important profession,” and said, “Be a teacher. We need you as teachers more than ever right here in Connecticut.”
‘Be the Teacher You Did Not Have’
State Sen. Douglas McCrory, who taught for 30 years, said, “This profession needs you and I need you, but more importantly, your neighborhoods, your communities and families across Connecticut need you.”
Sen. McCrory, who represents Hartford, Bloomfield and Windsor in the State Senate, said, “Be the teacher you did not have in your classrooms. All the research in the world shows that when students are taught by a diverse teacher population everyone wins. We do not have enough teachers who look like me in our schools. Less than one percent of teachers in Connecticut are male teachers of color. That’s terrible.
“Stay engaged, stay inspired. Join the greatest profession there is. You will lift the minds and spirits of young people for the rest of your life. I want you to be the great teachers for the next generation.”
EdRising Is ‘Critically Important’
U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes of Waterbury said, “Programs like EdRising are critically important” because they help young students to understand what they need to do to prepare for careers in education. “This is the type of program I wish I had when I was in high school.”
She said the American Rescue Plan will provide funds to bring greater diversity to the education profession. “We must get people from our own minority communities interested in education and have them return to their communities to teach.”
Rep. Hayes has introduced the Teacher Diversity and Retention Act, which would provide two grants. One would support teacher recruitment and training at minority-serving institutions such as Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). The other would expand educator-preparation programs in high schools as well as in colleges.
She also supports the Save Education Jobs Act of 2021, which would provide funds to save four million education jobs in support areas such as guidance counselors.
“I’m going to continue to fight to make sure you have the resources to pursue your dreams,” she said, “because, in turn, all of our communities benefit.”
Allocating State Resources
State Rep. Bobby Sanchez of New Britain, co-chair of the Education Committee, said, “I’m working on measures that incentivize a diverse population in the pursuit of teaching careers by allocating the necessary resources and programs.
“One of the toughest challenges we face is ensuring we have a large enough pool of people to fill teaching positions across the state. That’s why partnerships with organizations such as Educators Rising is essential to making sure we prepare the future generation of teachers. Educators Rising is here every step of the way, offering support and expertise. I look forward to many more students pursuing this noble profession.”
Secretary Cardona: The Impact of Inspiring Teachers
Dr. Miguel Cardona welcomed the students remotely from his office in Washington. “Teachers shape lives,” he said. “I can think of a teacher in high school who inspired me to look at art as a means for communication and expressing your values. She inspired me so much that I chose to be a teacher.
“Teachers have that impact. She was a mentor to me. You will have the opportunity to benefit from mentors and then in the future to serve as mentors. Teachers can make anything possible.
“I know you will do great in the program. I know you will learn from one another, and I look forward to hearing about you as future teachers.”
Committed to Diversity
Acting State Commissioner of Education Charlene Russell-Tucker said, “We’re committed to increasing the racial, ethnic and linguistic diversity of our educator workforce by expanding new and unique pathways like Educators Rising and NextGen Educators.
“We all understand the sense of urgency right now about increasing the number of educators of color and encouraging students early on to consider careers in education,” she said.
“Research tells us that a diverse educator workforce – one that is a reflection of the students we serve – goes a long way toward strengthening our schools and positively impacting outcomes for all students of all races.
“We want to embrace diverse education candidates,” she said, “and give you the hands-on, authentic experience and skills necessary to become highly effective educators.”
‘What EdRising Means to Me’
Students described EdRising’s impact in a panel discussion moderated by Sandy Fraioli, the teacher leader in residence for the Connecticut State Department of Education and a teacher at New Britain High School (NBHS).
Deseriah Castillo, an NBHS graduate now at CCSU, said, “EdRising has enabled me to receive first-hand experience in the classroom. I had the opportunity to give back to the elementary school that I attended. The program has motivated me to become an educator in the community I came from.”
Jen Gustafson, an NBHS student, said, “EdRising is enabling me to learn about the different cultures, backgrounds and needs of my future students as well as the social issues they face. Educators need to meet the basic needs of their students no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion.”
Dallas Bastek, also an NBHS student, said she is intent on helping her future students by embracing their knowledge and skills. “We’re learning techniques that will enable us to serve all students,” she said.
José Carillo, an NBHS student who is the national EdRising president, said, “EdRising has opened so many doors for me and has given me so many learning opportunities. It has helped me to be more professional and learn how to speak with educational leaders. I’ve learned there are not many teachers who look like me. I hope to be a role model.”
Giving College Students More Time in the Classroom
NextGen Educators is a program that gives hands-on, classroom experience to college students in teacher-preparation programs (prior to student teaching).
William Tucker, a student at CCSU, said, “NextGen has given me clinical experience working with diverse students, enabling me to be there for students in their time of need. It has given me a year and a half of additional time in the classroom, learning through meaningful experience rather than from textbooks.”
Chrystal Gordon, also a CCSU student, said the program has taught her what it means to be a teacher day-in and day-out. She has observed classes from second through fifth grade and has attended parent-teacher conferences. “I’ve learned how to provide effective instruction, how to design a lesson plan that enables students to have fun – and so much more.
Aspiring Educators Program
Michele O’Neill of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA), a teacher’s union, explained the Aspiring Educators Program for college students who aren’t yet enrolled in a teacher-preparation program. CEA has chapters at all five state universities as well as Quinnipiac University and the University of Saint Joseph. “The program dovetails nicely with EdRising,” she said. Student members have the opportunity to network with educators in school districts across the state.
Editor’s Note: As a senior at South Windsor High School, Sophia Chin had the exhilarating experience of serving as a student member of the Connecticut State Board of Education. This gave her a platform to express her conviction that the biggest issue facing our public school system is a lack of diverse perspectives in curriculum and teaching. She soon learned that Dr. Miguel Cardona, then Commissioner of Education, shared her views on the importance of cultural diversity in the schools.
Now that Sophia is in her first year at George Washington University and Dr. Cardona is U.S. Secretary of Education, she is challenging him to carry out nationally the policies that he was implementing in Connecticut. Sophia is issuing this challenge as a youth board member with America’s Promise Alliance, which advocates for children and youth.
Congratulations to Sophia for remaining active in the public policy arena despite the demands of studying international affairs and economics. She is pursuing her interest in finance with hopes of joining an international bank and working with diverse clients around the world. With her permission, we are posting the essay that she wrote for the Alliance’s website. — Woody Exley
By Sophia Hala Chin
Dr. Miguel Cardona has just been confirmed as President Biden’s Secretary of Education in the most diverse cabinet in United States history. I applaud President Biden for shining a spotlight on a nominee like Dr. Cardona who has accomplished groundbreaking work in his field. Few Americans know what he has done and what kind of person he is. However, I have a unique, firsthand perspective of Dr. Cardona’s commitment to young people—and a few calls to action for him as he assumes this important national role.
At the beginning of his tenure as the Connecticut Commissioner of Education, Dr. Cardona appointed two high-school seniors to serve with him on the State Board of Education (SBOE), one of whom was me. Together, we navigated the waters of state education policy, which was a shock compared to our previous environments: me being a senior in high school, and he an educator and assistant superintendent from the small district of Meriden, Connecticut.
When I first began working with him, he made promises to better my learning experience and that of my fellow students. From my perspective, he utilized his position in state office to deliver on those promises in the time that he served. Now, with the platform and resources to make tangible change at the national level, I am hoping to see him deliver on the promises he first made to myself and Connecticut students, along with the new commitments he is making to all of America’s youth.
Lack of Diverse Perspectives
In some of our early conversations, we discussed the essay I wrote to apply for this student leadership position, in which I argued that the lack of diverse perspectives in curriculum and in teaching was the most prominent issue facing the Connecticut public school system. Dr. Cardona and I both know what it is like to not have teachers who look like us in the classroom. As a biracial (white and East Asian) female, I have not had consistent experiences with Asian or mixed-race teachers with whom I can identify, and I am not alone in feeling this way. I have heard Dr. Cardona reminisce about his school days and the lack of recurring Latinx educators throughout his life to give him guidance.
Dr. Cardona listened to young people’s stories and frustrations about this and several other issues by attending student panels across the state and having our State Student Advisory Board present to the BOE. Many of us noted our fatigue with having white teachers for “cultural studies” who relied on stereotypical, one-sided perspectives of race and culture. We wanted a curriculum that featured not only Black, Latinx, and Asian studies–we wanted those classes to be taught in a manner that properly reflects the strengths and nuances of their unaltered history.
Black and Latino Studies Course
After listening to these insights, Dr. Cardona decided to pursue a curriculum for minority studies. In December of 2020, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to require all high schools to offer a curriculum on Black and Latinx studies, and Dr. Cardona helped make the law a reality by leading the Connecticut State Department of Education in a collaborative effort to develop the curriculum.
In the words of Dr. Cardona, “The fact is that more inclusive, culturally relevant content in classrooms leads to greater student engagement and better outcomes for all. This [happened] due in large part to the strong advocacy of students from around the state.”
Simply the thought of having a teacher who looks like me—a multiracial, multiethnic, woman of color—genuinely inspires me to consider becoming an educator in my future. We want such students to go into teaching because they will help and inspire not only children of color but also students who come from dissimilar backgrounds. Dr. Cardona knows what it is like to be that rare educator of color and knows what it means to listen to young people—and act on what he hears.
Affordable Housing and Better Pay
In addition to championing the curriculum revision, Dr. Cardona and I spent time in countless Board meetings discussing the necessity of implementing affordable housing and better pay for educators of color to ensure proper compensation and retention. These types of changes, however, are difficult to encourage without the proper resources. Despite the challenges, Dr. Cardona and his team made notable progress on this front because he is the type of leader who listens and takes direct action. It was rare to see him behind closed doors dictating policy to his team. In fact, he often eliminated the constraints of doors and walls.
Specifically, Dr. Cardona had revolving, open-door office hours during which he set up office in random cubicles on different floors and in different departments, and his employees and student advisors could grab a seat next to him. This openness and direct connection to students allowed us and other team members to speak with him one-on-one about new ideas or improvements to current policy.
Moving forward, I am calling for Dr. Cardona to carry this openness, willingness to listen, and commitment to equity with him as he assumes the role of U.S. Secretary of Education. Dr. Cardona and the Biden administration must do more and do better for teachers and young people, particularly teachers and young people of color.
Must Listen to Youth Perspectives
In order to make these and other necessary changes, the U.S. Department of Education must listen to youth perspectives. I challenge Dr. Cardona and his team to continue walking the walk when it comes to youth voice by establishing a Student Advisory Board comprised of young people from all different backgrounds to provide the most diverse perspectives.
Since this department is the pinnacle of education policy in the country, it is extremely important that decisions are made with guidance from the primary stakeholders—students.
Americans want to see a Department of Education that translates words into action. We want to see an approach that encourages students to become well-rounded individuals capable of seeing different sides of the world through intellectual and emotional development. This starts at the Department of Education with Dr. Cardona’s lead. Now that he is confirmed, innovation with and for students can begin. I am confident in Secretary Cardona’s character and leadership, and challenge him to enact real change with the help of young people like me.
Editor’s Note: As indicated in Sophia’s essay, she believes strongly that policymakers must listen to students and take their perspectives into account. She has been involved with an organization called “Student Voice,” which encourages students to express their concerns and priorities to their local school boards. To support this, the organization has produced a School Board Testifying Guide. The document describes how to:
Become informed and present to your school board,
Identify a major issue,
Write your testimony, and
Present to your school board.
This will be a valuable resource for youths who are getting involved in public policy and sharing their perspectives with those responsible for their local school districts.