A Mercer Island woman has given $40,000 to Highline College to create scholarships for its new teacher-training program.

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Louise Wilkinson has long been aware of the achievement gap — the persistent disparity in educational performance among students of different races and socioeconomic status in American schools — as well as the many unsuccessful efforts to fix it.

So earlier this year, when she heard about a community college program to get more teachers of color into the classroom, Wilkinson offered to put her money where her beliefs were. She gave Highline College a $40,000 donation for scholarships for its new teacher-training program.

“It’s so important that kids of color have teachers of color,” said Wilkinson, a Boeing retiree who used to lead diversity training. “It influences how they value education, how they see themselves.”

Wilkinson thinks that’s one of the most promising ideas out there to erase disparities.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab 

Highline is one of four community colleges that have started offering a bachelor’s of applied science in teaching and early learning, with most of the classes offered in the evenings and weekends, so students can work during the day and take classes at night.

When students are done, they’re eligible for a residency teacher certificate with an elementary or early-childhood-education endorsement. That’s the first-tier certificate most teachers in Washington must receive in order to get their first teaching jobs.

The Des Moines college is one of the most diverse community colleges in the state, with 70 percent of its enrollment made up of students of color.

Offering teacher training in a community college means making the degree program more widely available to people who can’t afford to pick up and move to a college town, and offering it at a community college that already has a very diverse enrollment increases the likelihood that students of color will be part of the training, said Frank Kline, manager of the Highline program.

And that’s exactly what happened. More than 60 percent of the 30 students in the program are people of color.

Tuition for the program costs $7,500 a year, and most students who have already earned an associate degree will take two years to finish. That might not sound like much compared to tuition at a big public or private college, but for many students in the program, $7,500-a-year tuition is a heavy lift, Kline said, and the scholarships will make a difference.

“There are a number of single parents in the program who are trying to keep their homes together, provide for their children, and better their situation by going to school,” he said. “That’s an amazing task — I have so much respect for them.”

Wilkinson’s contribution will be used for some scholarships to be awarded immediately, in 2018, and also to create an endowment to support a scholarship in perpetuity. In order to qualify, a student must have financial need and come from a traditionally marginalized population.

A single gift of $40,000 is a big deal for Highline. The college’s foundation takes in about $275,000 to $300,000 from individual donors every year, and another $250,000 to $300,000 from businesses and foundations.

A Mercer Island resident with no connection to Highline, Wilkinson, who is white, said she read about the Highline program in The Seattle Times, and reached out to the college to see how she might help.

She hopes her donation will have ripple effects. A recent study found that low-income, male students who are black were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had at least one black teacher in grades 3-5.

“I want to see these young people thrive and become teachers,” she said.