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Effort to Develop Black, Minority Teachers Has Growing Support in Peoria

Linda Wilson teaches 2nd grade at Trewyn K-8 and is working to revive a program in Peoria that aims to train and place minority teachers in the school district.
Cass Herrington
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Peoria Public Radio
Linda Wilson teaches 2nd grade at Trewyn K-8 and is working to revive a program in Peoria that aims to train and place minority teachers in the school district.
Linda Wilson teaches 2nd grade at Trewyn K-8 and is working to revive a program in Peoria that aims to train and place minority teachers in the school district.
Credit Cass Herrington / Peoria Public Radio
/
Peoria Public Radio
Linda Wilson teaches 2nd grade at Trewyn K-8 and is working to revive a program in Peoria that aims to train and place minority teachers in the school district.

A statewide grassroots initiative launched a decade ago to get more minorities teachers into the classroom lost funding when Illinois went without a budget. A teacher shortage surfaced about the same time. One Peoria educator is working to bring back the Grow Your Own Teacher program to address both issues.

The View from a Classroom

A second grade class is reading a story about a boy venturing out into the city to help his older sister find a job.

The siblings in the story make several stops, including a bakery and an auto shop. It’s a narrative many of the second graders already understand:

“A lot of our students have younger siblings or older siblings that they learn from or have a really deep connection with,” teacher Linda Wilson said.

Wilson teaches at Trewyn K-8, where nearly all students live in low-income households. That means older siblings often take charge, while parents are working. Wilson says having culturally relevant learning materials keeps kids engaged. But there’s something about this classroom that perhaps keeps it even more relatable. The teacher, Wilson, is black like most of the students and she also lives about three blocks away from the school. She calls the students and their families “her people.”

A student follows along the class reading. Wilson says she has the class read out loud together, as opposed to individually, to help students build student confidence.
Credit Cass Herrington / Peoria Public Radio
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Peoria Public Radio
A student follows along the class reading. Wilson says she has the class read out loud together, as opposed to individually, to help students build student confidence.

“I see them at the grocery store, I see them at the hair supply store, I see them at church, so I see them at different avenues,” Wilson said.

That’s essentially the cornerstone of the program she’s trying to re-establish in Peoria called Grow Your Own Teachers.

Kate Van Winkle is the Executive Director of the state GYO program. She says it’s structured around the idea that “locally grown” teachers are invested in their community.  

“Not only do you have a person who’s committed to teaching and inspiring students, but you’re also helping in terms of lowering the cost for the school district because turnover is a very expensive reality for a lot of school districts across the country,” Wilson said.

Funding On Hold

Another challenge facing urban school districts statewide is a lack of minority teachers. Peoria Public Schools’ Illinois Report Card data shows the makeup of teachers is 88 percent white, with about seven percent of teachers identifying as black. Conversely, white students make up less than a quarter of students enrolled and more than 57 percent are black.

When Grow Your Own launched in 2005, it set a lofty goal of training a-thousand new teachers to be placed in districts across the state. Before the budget impasse, GYO was active in 11 Illinois school districts. The loss of state funding means the program remains in two. Chicago and Rockford have found ways to maintain their local efforts.  

“What’s heartbreaking about the budget impasse and the lack of funds we have is that there are literally hundreds of people that are passionate about not only education, but they’re passionate about educating young people in their own communities,” VanWinkle said.

Aside from the stalemate in Springfield, Grow Your Own also received opposition from lawmakers because it was expensive. The state spent more than 22 million dollars on Grow Your Own over a decade.

“I know that there has been a critique out there, that maybe they didn’t have enough impact for the money that was spent,” State Sen. David Koehler said.

Grow Your Own says 115 candidates completed the program and are teaching in school districts across Illinois. But since its inception, many candidates dropped out or were unable to complete the program. Sen. Koehler says despite the challenges, he thinks the benefits are worth the upfront investment.

“And certainly the track record comes into that, as to whether somebody’s deserving to have ongoing funding,” Koehler said. “But I think this is an idea that just is so needed in our communities that we should give it every consideration that we can.”

A breakdown of teachers in Peoria Public Schools, by racial identity
Credit Illinois Report Card
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Illinois Report Card
A breakdown of teachers in Peoria Public Schools, by racial identity

Looking Ahead

Koehler says he’s hopeful funding could be restored, when the state passes a budget. But the program’s executive director Kate VanWinkle says in the meantime, they’ve learned other important lessons.

“We can no longer rely solely on state funds, but it is absolutely a community and city-wide effort,” VanWinkle said. “You need to have support from lots of different sectors in order for GYO to be successful.”

A breakdown of students enrolled in Peoria Public Schools in 2015-2016, by racial/ethnic identity.
Credit Illinois Report Card
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Illinois Report Card
A breakdown of students enrolled in Peoria Public Schools in 2015-2016, by racial/ethnic identity.

The organization has had to rethink its funding and organizational structure. Van Winkle says the remaining GYO programs are mostly funded by private sources, like foundations.

That seems to be the direction Peoria is headed, which brings us back to second grade teacher Linda Wilson. She’s been meeting with stakeholders for the past year to get funding off the ground. Wilson’s invested in making Peoria GYO program happen.

“I would not have become a teacher probably, if it hadn’t been for the program. I was a teacher’s aide previously, and I was kind of chugging away with taking two or three classes here, it just would have taken a long time,” Wilson said.

Wilson says the money required to be a successful teacher including tuition, unpaid student teaching and board certification can be too cost prohibitive for nontraditional, particularly working parents.

Peoria District 150’s administration has included GYO in its five-year strategic plan. Superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat says she’s requesting the recently-established community governing board Alignment Peoria make it a funding priority.

Wilson estimates the cost of starting Grow Your Own in Peoria will be about $200,000. That would cover expenses like tuition, a living stipend, travel and mentoring. She says it's an investment in teachers, but more importantly, it’s an investment in kids and the community.

“People in poverty may think that they have this hopelessness. They may think, ‘okay, we’ll play the lottery and get our family out of this.’ But the foundation of almost everything is education,” Wilson said. “That’s something I tell my students all the time, that that’s where their power lies.”

Having more black and minority teachers in the classroom is also a powerful visual cue. Wilson says it gives students a role model, a in a leadership position where they may not have previously seen themselves. 

Copyright 2017 WCBU