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Recruiting teachers with a social justice hook

Sumair Sheikh, a college and career readiness specialist for the Duluth school district, is involved with the planning for a new program that aims to interest students of color in teaching via a social justice class. Steve Kuchera /

A couple of years ago Sumair Sheikh was working with some Denfeld High School students as part of a larger federal program that aimed to address racial tensions in schools.

He asked the group of students of color whether any of them had had a teacher that looked like them.

"Somebody raised their hand, but it wasn't in Duluth," he said. "It was just that one person."

That got Sheikh, a college and career readiness specialist for the Duluth school district, thinking about his own school experience growing up Muslim, and crystallized for him the importance of having more diversity in teaching ranks.

"We have this diverse group of students and we're not matching, we're not even close to having that reflection in our teachers," he said.

Thanks to work by Sheikh and others, the district is planning to beef up its recruitment efforts, in part with a new program next fall called Pathways2Teaching. It is hoped it will ultimately get more students of color on the road to teaching in Duluth schools.

"More and more research coming out in the field of education shows that when students of color have teachers of color they are more successful," said assistant superintendent Amy Starzecki, who said narrowing the district's achievement gaps is its top priority.

Minority teachers make up only 4.2 percent of the state's teachers, while students of color are nearly a third of the state's students, according to a report released last year by the Minnesota Department of Education. In Duluth schools, that number is 5 percent, while students of color make up 23 percent of enrollment.

As Minnesota works to address its achievement gap — documented as one of the worst in the country — money has been spent on professional development and other best practices, said Paul Spies, part of the School of Urban Education at Metropolitan State University and a member of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota.

That's important, he said, but good teaching starts with relationships and trust, which diversity among teachers can help achieve.

"I would argue one of the reasons Minnesota has largely failed despite a lot of energy to close achievement gaps," Spies said, "is because we haven't put a lot of attention into closing the race gap between who is teaching and who is learning."


The program was created by Margarita Bianco, an associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver and the Timmerhaus Teaching Ambassador for the University of Colorado.

She spent years researching what would work to "grow your own," she said, when it comes to students of color entering the teaching workforce. What she found, she said, is that teachers of color choose that path for reasons that are different from white teachers. They look at the profession through a social justice and equity lens, wanting to be role models for students.

"It's about racial uplift, about being in the community you grew up in, making changes and disrupting some of the inefficient things that districts do to continue to perpetuate the achievement gap," Bianco said. "That's the key."

In this program, students study race and equity issues in schools while they get an overview of teaching and education. They study relationship building, the achievement gap, the roles schools play in equalizing opportunities and the economic, educational and societal impacts on inequities.

The class would be offered to juniors and seniors, and with a partnership with the College of St. Scholastica, would also offer college credit through St. Scholastica's teacher preparation program. The college's introduction to education class is the offering that will be tweaked to align with the Pathway curriculum, said Brenda Fischer, dean of St. Scholastica's school of education.

The areas of study, Bianco said, "have proven to be an effective motivator so kids start to understand 'why is my GPA a 1.2 but I know I am smart.' When they start to recognize the resources they don't have that other students have ... when they start to see they've been in a system that really pushes them out of school. They will start to get engaged and want to come back and change it."

The program, which began in 2010, is in place in eight districts in Colorado and one in Nashville. It involves two years of study, but Duluth is starting with one. It includes learning public speaking and college readiness skills, and working with elementary school kids on building literacy skills.

Starzecki said Duluth students who enroll in a St. Scholastica teaching program would have priority over other candidates to work as paraprofessionals in the district while they earned a degree, and would have hiring priority as teaching candidates. They would also have priority for the new class.

'Work to do'

Immediate solutions are often sought by school districts when it comes to hiring and recruiting teachers of color, Bianco said. Short-term Teach for America people might be brought in, or candidates from out of state. They don't know the community and perhaps don't fit in, so they leave, she said.

"You get this revolving door and nothing is really solved, and the students are the ones who suffer," she said, which is why her program focuses on stoking the passion of homegrown students. She also recommends districts work to have agreements with other teacher preparation programs who will accept the credits of the issuing institution, so students have more college choices. Fischer said that is something the college will explore because of the "tremendous need" for more teachers of color.

The program puts Duluth on the "cutting edge" of a national and statewide problem, said Spies, whose group pushed for teacher diversification legislation last session.

"Duluth is doing the right thing," he said. "The (achievement gap) in Duluth is wide, but not as wide as many other places. A lot of districts with a lot more students of color don't have any teachers of color ... there is a lot of work to do."

Sheikh said school can be hard for students who are seen as an "other." He couldn't eat pepperoni pizza on pizza days and Christmas wasn't celebrated at home, but he still endured Christmas parties in school.

"It's difficult to unpack that as a young student," he said.

For him, school would have been more comfortable with a teacher he could relate to, as it was for the Indian and Pakistani students he taught earlier in his career. But a lack of diversity can also be tough on school employees who belong to an underrepresented group.

"There would be a greater sense of belonging if the workforce was more diverse," Sheikh said.