By Lea Trusty - - public radio

According to a study from the Institute of Labor Economics, students of color are less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to pursue college if they have at least one minority teacher.

The problem is, there’s a severe shortage of teachers of color in this country. And that gap between minority students and teachers is especially wide in Connecticut.

Some new programs in the state have been designed to close that gap.

Tai Olasanoye interned at an elementary school when he was in college. Before that, he never imagined being a teacher.

“Growing up, I didn’t see an African-American male teacher. So it wasn’t considered an option for me.”

Olasanoye now teaches at ACES Whitney High School North in Hamden.

It’s a school dedicated to students with cognitive and behavioral challenges. About 80 percent of students are minorities. There are several paraprofessionals of color at the school, but Olasanoye is one of only two black teachers.

“It’s great to be in my position, where in particular you relate to a certain student or a certain segment of the population that’s really experiencing a lot of hardships.”

Minority students make up 42 percent of the population in Connecticut, but only eight percent of educators are minorities. And teacher prep programs don’t draw enough people of color. For example, last year at Southern Connecticut State University, only one-third of undergraduates studying to become teachers were minorities. And there wasn’t a single black man among them.

“That zero told me a story,” says Stephen Hegedus, dean of the School of Education at Southern. He wants to reach students before they even step foot on campus.

“Having that experience to meet with them, having that time – it will ignite a passion in students.”

The school has a new endowment that offers scholarships for students of color. And that will be boosted by workshops held at local high schools and led by teachers, principals and superintendents. Hegedus says the goal is to put college – and teaching – on the radar of young minority students.

“That community engagement, that dialogue where we talk about the fears, the challenges, their perceptions of schools. I believe that will be a significant way forward.”

Connecticut’s Education Department has also begun to address the challenge of the teacher shortage. It recently created a Minority Teacher Recruitment Task Force and wants to hire 1,000 black and Latino teachers and leaders by 2021.

Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of the Education Department, says part of the strategy will be to use feedback from current teachers of color.

“We’ve heard advancement challenges, feeling isolated, either because they are one of the few teachers of color in a school district, or the district itself has not really embraced a culturally responsive approach.”

Recruiting teachers is one problem. Training is another. Some say the process to become a teacher is overly challenging. So the state has started to push for alternative routes for certification.

Last year, it approved a national program called the Relay Graduate School for Education. It provides advanced teaching degrees and certification in a shorter amount of time.

Critics say these alternative routes aren’t as rigorous as traditional teacher prep programs. But Dianna Wentzell of the State Education Department still believes it’s one way to tackle the problem.

“People often say, is it this or is it this? Is it grow your own strategy or recruit from historically black colleges and universities? Should we be recruiting from Puerto Rico? It’s like, yes, yes and yes. It’s in all of that.”

But “all of that” is far from simple. Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the non-profit Connecticut Council for Education Reform, thinks that even if 1,000 teachers of color are recruited in the state, it may be a while until that translates into better results for minority students.

“So we’ve recognized it, but now will we be willing to take some of the steps necessary to get these outcomes to change for our students? That remains to be seen, to be quite honest.”

Villar says it would be a mistake to oversell any one step as a solution. But he says any sincere effort is a good start to ensure our teachers are just as diverse as our communities.