In Clark County, the disparity between the number of teachers and students of color is steep. But in recent years, Washington state has expanded nontraditional training programs — and three of them are in Southwest Washington.

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Monica Stonier will never forget the day she learned why diversity among teachers matters.

About 20 years ago, as a new teacher at Evergreen Public Schools, a kindergartner approached her and looked her over.

“You’re brown, just like me,” Stonier recalled the little girl saying. Stonier is Latina and also has Japanese heritage.

Stonier was stunned. She spent the whole day looking around at her fellow teachers — and noticing how few of them are people of color.

“This cute little babe just stated this thing that was so different for her in such plain terms,” she said. “It wasn’t front-of-mind for me until I recognized how important it was to that little girl.”

Editor’s note: This is the final article in a three-part series on student-teacher representation done in collaboration with The (Vancouver) Columbian.

In Clark County, the disparities between the number of teachers of color and students of color are steep. Only 7.9 percent of the county’s 4,750 teachers identified as people of color, up from 7.2 percent in the 2012-2013 school year. Of about 550 teachers added locally in the past six years, about 70 identify as people of color.

By contrast, 33.7 percent of Clark County’s 80,323 students identified as a race other than white in the 2017-2018 school year.

But Washington could be poised to increase teacher diversity. In recent years, the state has expanded its Alternative Routes to Teacher Certification, nontraditional training programs targeted at para-educators or career changers who have bachelor’s degrees. Three of them are based in Southwest Washington.

Organizers say, however, that they remain underfunded.

Stonier — now a Democratic state legislator representing Vancouver — worries her peers in Olympia may not see diversity as a priority.

Still, because these programs tend to diverge from the more traditional pathways, Clark County districts hope the population of teachers of color will grow.

“If (teachers of color) aren’t available and they aren’t out there looking, that’s a barrier,” said Gail Spolar, spokeswoman for Evergreen Public Schools. “That’s why we have to get creative.”

Chipping away at the issue

Alternative teacher-certification programs, sometimes called “Grow Your Own” programs, are typically shorter and cheaper, allowing people to pursue certification without uprooting their lives. In Southwest Washington, about 60 students — an estimated 17 of whom are people of color – are enrolled.

That echoes state trends. About a quarter of teaching candidates enrolled in Washington’s alternative-route programs are people of color, according to the Professional Educator Standards Board, compared with 11 percent of teachers overall.

Amaya Garcia, the deputy director of English learner education for New America, a public policy think tank that receives funding from Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said these programs show that Washington is ahead of the curve on teacher diversity.  (Education Lab receives funding from the Gates Foundation).

“Washington’s taken a lead,” Garcia said.

At Washington State University Vancouver, a cohort of predominantly Latino and Hispanic para-educators from Evergreen Public Schools are pursuing their teaching degrees in preparation to enter the classroom next fall.

Paraeducators talked through a question posed by Gisela Ernst-Slavit, a Washington State University Vancouver professor, during a course at the Evergreen Public Schools. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)
Paraeducators talked through a question posed by Gisela Ernst-Slavit, a Washington State University Vancouver professor, during a course at the Evergreen Public Schools. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian)

The university recently won a five-year, $2.2 million grant to provide bilingual paraprofessionals in Vancouver and the Tri-Cities with scholarships to complete their bachelor’s degrees in education with English-learners endorsements. The program is called the Equity for Language Learners-Improving Practices and Acquisition of Culturally Responsive Teaching, or ELL-IMPACT. 

That’s key for the Evergreen district, where for every Latino teacher in the district, there are about 130 Latino students. For every white teacher, there are about 11 white students. Students of color overall made up 42.4 percent of Evergreen’s enrollment. Educators of color, meanwhile, made up 8.1 percent of the teaching staff.

Neighboring Vancouver Public Schools has slightly higher representation: For every Latino teacher in Vancouver there are 105 Latino students, compared with 11 white students for every white teacher.

Gisela Ernst-Slavit, a WSU Vancouver education professor, is the lead instructor on the ELL-IMPACT program. She touted her students’ intimate knowledge of the school communities, their existing relationships with families and their familiarity with district bureaucracies.

“They know the system very well, so they can function as advocates for the students they are teaching,” she said.

Melissa Sifuentes Phillips, an English-language learning para-educator, is a member of that class. She works at Crestline Elementary School, where she’s helped establish a network of Latino parent volunteers. 

“I want to be an ambassador for students of color,” she said. “Our classrooms are way diverse, but we don’t see that in their teachers.”

Sifuentes Phillips is already seeing the impact those connections have on students. She recalled a recent conversation in Spanish with a little girl in her classroom. When the student walked away, she heard the smiling girl tell her friends, “she talks like me.”

Melissa Sifuentes Phillips, a paraeducator at Crestline Elementary, listened to Ernst-Slavit’s lesson. Phillips is enrolled in a program that helps bilingual paraeducators pursue teaching degrees. (Nathan Howard / The Columbian)
Melissa Sifuentes Phillips, a paraeducator at Crestline Elementary, listened to Ernst-Slavit’s lesson. Phillips is enrolled in a program that helps bilingual paraeducators pursue teaching degrees. (Nathan Howard / The Columbian)

Underfunding

But alternative certification programs remain underfunded, says Alexandra Manuel, executive director of the  Professional Educator Standards Board. The Legislature budgeted about $1.8 million toward a block grant to fund “Grow Your Own” programs, but Manuel said the agency plans to request $5.2 million to expand them.

“Providers are interested in this group, but we have to be able to provide funding and incentives to make this stick,” she said.

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 

Take Vancouver-based Educational Service District 112, for example. Last year it became the first noncollege to offer an alternative pathways program. ESD-U offers certification training for people who already have their bachelor’s degrees, or additional certification for teachers looking to teach a different subject.

But the program is funded through tuition dollars or school-district investments, not the state board.

That’s limited the district’s ability to recruit diverse candidates, said Mike Esping, director of educator effectiveness and early career development for ESD 112.

Currently, five of the 25 candidates identify as people of color — still more diverse than the county’s existing teaching staff, but Esping said the program is lagging  in recruiting people of color.

“I don’t think in any way we’re making gains,” he said.

Stonier was among those who pushed for funding to improve access to the program during the last legislative session. The bill would have provided $8,000 in scholarships to 30 candidates this school year, but it died in committee.

Stonier hopes her peers will see the need to invest in such programs.

“It certainly isn’t true everywhere, but access to higher education and advanced degrees in communities, especially if they’re communities of color, just often aren’t as attainable,” Stonier said.

Changing the face of educators

Adam Aguilera is among the few Latino teachers in the Evergreen School District, and a supporter “Grow Your Own.” He also helps lead cultural-responsiveness training for the district — meaning, he teaches teachers to respect all students’ backgrounds and identities, racial or otherwise.

“It’s basically sort of that subconscious bias that you may have against a student,” he said. “A well-meaning educator can actually make a student uncomfortable.”

Though it’s critical that school employees recognize their biases, that awareness can only go so far. Marla Morton, a speech-language pathologist at Cascade Middle School who co-leads the training, said districts must also invest in hiring a diversity of teachers so students have role models.

Adam Aguilera helped fourth-graders with a math game at Pioneer Elementary School. (Alisha Jucevic / The Columbian)
Adam Aguilera helped fourth-graders with a math game at Pioneer Elementary School. (Alisha Jucevic / The Columbian)

Aguilera, an English teacher on special assignment this year, said he encourages his students to “speak their truth.” That, combined with his own heritage, is why he thinks all his students – no matter their ethnicity or sexual identity feel comfortable in his classroom.

“I really emphasize that we have a safe space where they’re respected, where their views and their voice is important,” he said.

Aguilera is optimistic that alternative route programs, like Evergreen’s, will create a class of teachers who reflect their students’ communities. He also said these programs eliminate barriers for people of color to access middle-class jobs and higher education.

He said, “In a generation’s time, that would change the face of our educators.”