Advocates renew push for funding, recruiting teachers of color in Minnesota

Posted on July 12, 2021 by Keenan Jones

The effort focuses on hiring Black men for grade schools

Parents can’t visit classrooms at the School of Engineering and Arts in Golden Valley, but a quick stop would confirm what e-mails and phone calls suggest about new second-grade teacher Shad Williams: He is energetic, inspired, steady.

He is Black, too, and it’s making a difference.

Aarica Coleman, a parent who is Black, said she was so surprised when Williams phoned recently with a “praise report” about her son Christopher — an update describing a level of classroom engagement she did not think possible — that she had to tell him: “This is not normal. This is you. This is him having a Black male teacher.”

At the State Capitol, efforts are again underway to boost the number of teachers of color in Minnesota. The push has drawn bipartisan support as lawmakers work on a new public schools budget and as proponents cite the importance of students connecting with adults they can directly relate to and aspire to be like.

“It is so extremely important that we invest in our next generations and have a teaching staff that reflects our community and our students who are in these classrooms,” said state Rep. Heather Keeler, DFL-Moorhead. “We know that the return on investment is going to be significant.”

The Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in MN is asking lawmakers for up to $80 million over two years. Another group drawing attention for similar efforts is called Black Men Teach, relative upstarts with a narrower goal of adding Black male teachers at eight metro area elementary schools.

Surprise first: Shad Williams was surprised to become the first Black teacher at Golden Valley’s School of Engineering and Arts in the Robbinsdale district. “We’re not in the Jim Crow age,” Williams said. “It was very new to me.”

The coalition’s proposal is far-reaching, reflecting the relatively steep price tag. It includes stipends for student teaching, scholarships, and bonuses to attract teachers from other states, among other pursuits.

Black Men Teach has 11 prospective teachers in the pipeline as it works to bring attention to the good that studies show comes from having Black boys taught by Black men at an early age. A 2017 study, co-authored by a Johns Hopkins University economist, showed low-income Black boys who had at least one Black teacher in grades three through five were 29% more likely to say they were considering college, and 39% less likely to drop out of high school.

Black men who do get into teaching often do so later in life after self-reflection. A case in point is Markus Flynn, executive director of Black Men Teach. He went to college to become an epidemiologist, but after seeing studies about the impact Black men can have in the classroom switched to teaching.

Flynn points to misperceptions about low pay as a factor in some men’s decisions not to pursue teaching earlier. Plus, the requirement to spend time student teaching — almost always without pay — can be a deterrent for those who may not be able to forgo an income. Flynn has emerged as an ambassador for the cause at State Capitol hearings, and in a recent Robbinsdale Area Schools forum, likened by its moderator to guys kicking around subjects at the barbershop.

“You learn about life at the barbershop,” said LeVarn Shelby, a school climate and culture specialist in Robbinsdale.

The session, “Black Men Impacting Change in Education,” had a brotherly and at times nostalgic feel. When student Pierre Domjang name-checked Larry Tate, athletic director at Robbinsdale’s Armstrong High, for encouraging him to embrace books and language and culture while in middle school, it brought nods of recognition from the other panelists. “Mr. Tate is solid as they come,” one said.

Keenan Jones, a fourth-grade teacher in the Hopkins school district, spoke of growing up in a neighborhood that was home to Black teachers, and about how when his single mother went to work he’d be invited into their homes. They wanted to be sure, he said, that a Black youngster was fed and that he had love and hope.

“The strength of Black love, we know, is powerful, and we continuously need that in the classroom more than ever,” Jones said.

Too often, Black students are made to feel inferior, said Domjang, a senior at Robbinsdale Virtual Academy. In high school, he said, he was told while taking an Advanced Placement course in English that perhaps he should return to a traditional classroom. He was one of just two Black students in the class and it pained him to think he could not represent his culture.

“I’m the first one to be kicked out but the last to be let in — that’s the way I was feeling,” Domjang said.

He said he has never had a full-time Black teacher.

On the flip side are bonds created between students and teachers of the same culture — evidence of which was shared by students during a recent state House committee hearing in support of the Increase Teachers of Color Act.

Rizal Agaton-Howes, an eighth-grader at Cloquet Middle School, said he had three Ojibwe teachers in elementary school who fired a desire to learn about his Ojibwe ancestry. He said he hoped other students of color could find similar ways to feel at home in the classroom.

Williams, the new teacher at the School of Engineering and Arts (SEA), took some time to find his elementary calling.

His mother, a kindergarten teacher, saw him as a natural for the job. But Williams began his career as a high school instructor in California. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he moved to Robbinsdale Area Schools and elementary students. He eventually became SEA’s first Black teacher, he said, which surprised him. “We’re not in the Jim Crow age,” Williams said. “It was very new to me.”

His classroom looks as if it were created with the help of a Nickelodeon set designer, with large expanses of the walls covered, and kids’ backpacks adding even more splashes of color. On a recent morning, Williams led the class through a sign-language exercise involving a three-minute and 41-second run-through of “God Bless America,” an assignment they embraced.

“Perfect, perfect, perfect,” he said after the final flourish. “Take your seats, please.”

Then it was on to phonics.

Parents say kids are bringing the excitement home. Stacie Mariette, who is white, said her daughter Lydia is shy but has come out of her shell due in part to the sign language and to Williams’ influence. Roshae White, who is Black, said her son Blake was once hesitant to talk about school but now volunteers what he has learned. It’s almost as if “his personality has tripled,” she said. For Coleman, the thrills keep coming.

When she first laid eyes on “Mr. Shadly” in a video stream, she could not stop smiling, she said. Later, she said, she was in tears when she learned about the sign language. What her son Christopher doesn’t know, Coleman said, is that his grandfather — her father — is deaf, but skilled at reading lips.

“Hats off to Mr. Shadly,” she said. “My son can engage with my father in a different way.”

Staff writer Peter Warren contributed to this report.

By Anthony Lonetree