By Aziza Musa - Akansas Online

Eight high school students — all male — will start taking teacher-preparation courses at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff this month in an effort to raise the racial and ethnic diversity of teachers nationwide.

The teens are a part of Project Pipeline Repair, a three-year initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and administered by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

The project will help a maximum of 60 boys through four historically black colleges and universities — including UAPB — prepare to enroll in educator-preparation programs at higher education institutions and then work as teachers in underserved elementary schools, slowly reducing educator shortages, according to the project’s design template.

“Not only do we have a statewide shortage of qualified educators in Arkansas, but we have a significant shortage of African-American and Latino male teachers,” said Maria Markham, the director of Arkansas’ Department of Higher Education. “The goal of Repairing the Pipeline is for our K-12 students to have access to quality male role models in the classroom. The unique aspect of this program is that when students involved succeed, our younger students have a better chance of success, and the impact is much more broad.”

The program comes as the nation is facing a teacher shortage regardless of gender, race and ethnicity. Arkansas had seen a steady decline in the number of students enrolling in educator preparation programs, but enrollment in those programs increased for the first time in several years in 2016-17, the Arkansas Department of Education said.

More than three of every four teachers in pre-kindergarten through 12th grades are women, according to 2016 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that increases to nearly 98 percent at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels. In Arkansas, nearly 2 percent of the 33,228 certified teachers are black men, and fewer than 1 percent are Hispanic men, according to the state’s Education Department.

Research shows that if students in minority groups are exposed to just one teacher of color during their elementary-school years, it “significantly increases” the likelihood of that child finishing high school, said Denise Pearson, the principal investigator for the grant and the association’s principal policy analyst.

“They will aspire to attend college,” she said. “There are less occurrences of school suspensions and greater participation in advanced placement courses.”

The grant homes in on historically black colleges and universities, of which many began as teachers’ colleges and which continue to graduate the most black students with education degrees, the template states. It will give each of the four universities — UAPB, Alcorn State University in Mississippi, Southern University in Baton Rouge and Claflin University in South Carolina — an equal amount for personnel and student engagement, which would include a residential experience.

The eight Arkansans submitted applications, a reflective essay and two letters of recommendation. They are all juniors at Bryant, Pine Bluff and Dollarway high schools, said Garry Lewis, an associate professor at UAPB and the university’s coordinator for the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation Program.

And this month, they will start taking Foundations of Education as a dual-credit online course for the spring semester. They will enroll in a multicultural diversity course in the summer and an elective course in education in fall 2018 — all at no cost.

For a week this summer, the group will also stay at UAPB for a residential component that could include interactive lectures, the field trips and service learning.

On top of that, the student participants will receive Apple iPads and polo shirts, along with mentors.

“A lot of students come from low-wealth communities where they don’t have access to mentors for whatever reasons,” Pearson said. “And there are studies that show students who have access to mentors, they’re just more successful in all realms of life: high school, college and when they get into professions, their jobs. Mentors keep you on track. They say, ‘I care.’ They invest the time in you.”

The students will also be able to access additional resources: IXL and Newsela Pro. Newsela is an online literary resource that offers multiple versions of nonfiction pieces appropriate for students’ reading grade levels, while IXL will help get students’ math and language arts academic performance up to par, if needed.

The schools will also use IXL as a way to prepare the students for the Praxis test, which educator hopefuls must take to become licensed. Participants are expected throughout the span of the grant to take the Praxis twice.

The end goal of the project is to help change the narrative of the teaching profession and to take the results, if positive, to policymakers as a way to start other similar programs, Pearson said.

Teaching has been seen as a predominantly female field, she said. Students who have higher grade-point averages look to careers such as law or something related to science, technology, engineering or mathematics, Lewis said. But also, many aren’t attracted to a job perceived as having a low salary, he and Pearson said. Both of them added that at some point teacher salaries would have to be addressed.

“And how I sold the idea of going into education is, ‘Well have you looked at administration?'” Lewis said. “We are looking for quality administrators — that’s another thing for you to make an impact in our public schools. It’s also an opportunity for you to make a decent salary as an administrator. When I had that approach, you know, their eyes widen a little bit. ‘Well, I didn’t think about it that way.'”

Working with the group of high school students not only addresses achievement gaps — or the differences in academic performance — but also the opportunity gaps, Pearson said.

“The opportunities we are presenting to these students are opportunities that are prevalent in high-wealth communities,” she said, adding as examples access to informal and formal mentors, along with technology. “[Teaching] is a critical profession in this country, and if we want to be competitive on the global stage, we have to make sure we graduate competent students across nationalities, across ZIP codes — and we need minority teachers to get there.”