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How Illinois schools are trying to make their teacher workforce more diverse to help all students

DeKalb High School classroom
DeKalb High School classroom

In so many Illinois schools, teachers don’t look like their students. 27% of Illinois K-12 students are Hispanic, but only 8% of teachers. About 17% of students are Black, but only 6% of teachers.

This isn’t just an Illinois issue. Across the country, students are much more racially diverse than their educators. A recent state-by-state analysis from The Education Trustfound that Illinois has provided readily accessible data, set goals for teacher diversity and is intentionally recruiting diverse educators.

But in some of the state’s most diverse school districts, the disparity is wide. For example, in Rockford Public Schools, race is pretty evenly distributed. Close to a third of students are white, a third are Hispanic, and a third are Black. But Rockford teachers? Not so much. 87% are white, while 4% are Hispanic and 4% are Black. And that hasn’t changed in the past 10 years.

Dr. Laurie Elish-Piper is the dean of the College of Education at Northern Illinois University.

“Research has really indicated," she said, "that if, for example, Black students have a single Black teacher in their elementary school experience, it makes them much more likely to graduate from high school, it increases the likelihood of them having higher grades, and more positive attitudes towards school."

Per the research, if Black students have one Black teacher in elementary school, they’re 13% more likely to enroll in college. If they have two Black teachers? It jumps to over 30% This is referred to as the “Role Model Effect.”

And research suggests that more diverse teachers benefit all students, academically and socially.

The Illinois State Board of Education has set several statewide goals to increase teacher diversity -- starting with teacher candidate students at schools like NIU.

Dr. Jen Kirmes is the executive director of teaching and learning at the Illinois State Board of Education. She says their strategic plan aimed to increase the number of students of color in educator prep programs, like that at NIU, every year from 2020-2023.

“The specific goal was 5% per year," she said, "for the three years of our strategic plan."

Kirmes says they’ve hit those goals in the first two years they have data for. This past year, it went up 6%.

Back in 2018, The State Board outlined a goal to not just increase the number of minority teacher candidates, but thenumber of licensed teachers by 2025. Kirmes says they no longer have a specific goal for licensed teachers but have goals to increase retention rates.

Over the past few years, the state and individual school districts have invested more and more into “grow-your-own" teacher programs. That’s where schools seek out students in their district who might be interested in becoming a teacher or help staff already working in the school get their teaching license.

Kirmes says there are more than 10,000 Illinois students participating in these “early pathway programs.”

“These programs are a majority young people of color," she said, "which makes them a much closer match to the student body than what the current teacher workforce looks like."

Elish-Piper and NIU have forged several different “grow-your-own” pathways with different school districts in northern Illinois over the past few years. Their PLEDGE program helps prepare elementary school teachers with bilingual endorsements.

She says 200 teacher candidates have gone through or are currently going through the program.

One of their partnerships is with the U-46 school district in Elgin -- one of the largest in the state. More than half of U-46 students are Hispanic. Even though their teacher demographics don’t perfectly match that, they have made progress. In the past 10 years, the number of U-46 teachers of color has increased 11%.

Mireya Pérez is the director of human resources at U-46. She says they’ve invested a lot into their dual language programs. So, that means needing to hire bilingual teachers. Perez says they recruit teachers from Mexico, Spain and Puerto Rico. They go to Puerto Rico every year for job fairs.

Recently, they’ve started working with Tennessee State, a Historically Black University.

“We're trying to recruit and offer opportunities for students to come here and do their student teaching, said Perez, "in hopes of having them come and teach with U-46."

The West Chicago Elementary School District 33 has also made strides to increase teacher diversity -- especially when it comes to Hispanic teachers. 80% of their students are Hispanic.

The district has increased the number of Hispanic teachers by 10% since 2014 which, according to its HR director Mark Truckenbrod, is also when it started developing a dual language program. They now have those programs in each of their elementary schools.

“We know that culture is a big part of educating," said Truckenbrod. "If I feel like I belong, or if I know my teacher feels I belong in that classroom, then I'm more apt to connect and listen to what's being said, being taught and the challenges that I have."

Since then, they’ve been actively trying to “grow-their-own” through partnerships with local universities and online coursework. He says they’re also talking about how to offer childcare to employees who want to get a teaching license but have financial barriers.

“Our teaching forces haven't been diversified enough," he said, "and that's a direct result of not having access to higher education."

But Truckenbrod says in West Chicago, they plan to keep diversifying their teacher workforce so that the classroom truly reflects the community.

That’s the hope the others have as well -- for their districts, and for all of Illinois.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.