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Hispanic teacher
Inaugural cohort of the Pionero Scholars program working on their ideas for a logo in the Missions Center at Lipscomb University. Credit: Laura Delgado

This story is part of a series looking at a shortage of black and Hispanic teachers and ideas for recruiting more to the profession. Other stories will look at how the decline of traditional preparation programs has cut off a pipeline of black teachers and two efforts to identify more potential teachers from low-income, minority neighborhoods.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Alondra Piña Mota remembers being too embarrassed to talk to her high school teachers or college counselors about how her family’s reluctance to borrow money might prevent her from going to college.

Her parents, like many Mexican immigrant families, didn’t believe in taking out loans, even for education.  And she had to work to help with household expenses, so she knew that using what she earned to help pay for tuition would be difficult.

Nalexandro Cubero Crespo*, who was born in Puerto Rico, said that his teachers never called on him in class, because, he assumed, “they thought I wasn’t capable.” He graduated with a 3.83 GPA. One of his memories of school: “I was always raising my hand, waiting for them to call on me.”

Although they went to different schools in Nashville, the two 18-year-olds have something in common: Outside of high school Spanish class, both of them hardly ever saw a Hispanic teacher as they went through school.

They both believe that having Hispanic teachers might have made a difference in their education. Piña Mota said she would have felt more comfortable asking for help in navigating how to pay for college, for example. Cubero Crespo thinks Hispanic teachers wouldn’t have automatically assumed he wasn’t smart.

“Students who share racial and/or gender characteristics with their teachers tend to report higher levels of personal effort, happiness in class, feeling cared for, student-teacher communication, post-secondary motivation, and academic engagement.”

Now both are part of a cohort of six students who will begin a new, four-year program for undergraduates at Lipscomb University aimed at turning them into teachers. Called Pionero Scholars, or “pioneer scholars,” and housed in the school’s college of education, the program hopes to prepare Hispanic and immigrant students for careers in education and help close the gap — in Nashville and throughout the state — between the number of Hispanic students and the number of Hispanic teachers. The program’s first cohort also includes an immigrant from the Philippines and another from Bosnia.

Hispanic teacher
Credit: Graphic: Davin McHenry

The idea is “that teachers who share a linguistic and cultural background with their students have a unique role to play in urban schools,” according to program director Laura Delgado. She’s referring to decades of research on teacher diversity showing that students perform better when they are exposed to teachers who look like them and who have similar backgrounds.

Much of that research, along with a smattering of programs elsewhere attempting to address the lack of diversity in teaching, has focused on minorities in general, or on black teachers and students, and not specifically on Hispanics.

Related: Will controversial new tests for teachers make the profession even more overwhelmingly white?

But if Delgado is right about the benefits for Nashville classrooms of a cultural match between teachers and students, the program has arrived just in time. Since 2000, Tennessee has had the second-fastest-growing Hispanic population in the nation, going from 117,000 to 322,000, a 176 percent increase. Similar increases have been seen throughout the region, with six of the nation’s top-10 fastest-growing Hispanic populations in Southern states. Hispanics are on track to make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population as a whole by 2060.

Schools mirror that trend — among students. The share of U.S. students in kindergarten through 12th grade that is Hispanic increased from 19 to 25 percent between 2003 and 2013, while the black non-Hispanic population dropped from 17 to 16 percent and the white non-Hispanic population fell from 59 to 50 percent.

But the teaching profession hasn’t kept up. In Nashville, Hispanic students almost never see faces like their own at the front of a classroom. Hispanics account for 21.5 percent of Nashville students, but less than 2 percent of teachers, according to a recent report. By way of comparison, white non-Hispanics make up just 31.8 percent of students, but 73.9 percent of teachers. Put another way, that’s 223 Hispanic students for each Hispanic teacher, and 6.4 white non-Hispanic students for each white non-Hispanic teacher.

A similar gap, though less stark, exists in schools nationwide. Although the teaching force has become more diverse since the 1980s, the relative number of minority teachers is still extremely low. Richard Ingersoll, education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, detailed the numbers in “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” a recent report published by the Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit organization endowed by the American Federation of Teachers, a union. According to Ingersoll, about 44 percent of students and 17 percent of teachers in American public schools are minorities (up from 27 and 12 percent respectively in 1987-88). Just over 21 percent of students are Hispanic, compared to 7.8 percent of teachers in 2011-12, up from 3 percent in 1987-88, according to National Center for Education Statistics.

Delgado said the goal of increasing the number of Hispanic teachers, and minority teachers in general, can draw pushback. “People assume we’re saying that white teachers aren’t good,” she said, noting that a recent local newspaper article mentioning her program was followed by comments from readers such as, “Too many white teachers?!??”

“But that’s not the point,” she said. Jose Luis Vilson, a math teacher and author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, said that with increased teacher diversity, “Everybody benefits — including white teachers, who can learn from teachers of color about how to relate to their [minority] kids.”

Related: This may be the best way to train teachers, but can we afford it?

Research has largely supported the theory that a more diverse teaching force is good for students. In a 2004 study of Tennessee third-graders, Thomas S. Dee, then a Swarthmore College economics professor, saw slight improvements in reading and math test scores when black and white non-Hispanic students were assigned to teachers of the same race. And Anna Egalite, an education professor at North Carolina State University, found similar effects for black elementary school students in Florida matched with black teachers.

Hispanics account for 21.5 percent of students, but less than 2 percent of teachers in Nashville.

Egalite and a colleague are currently working on a study that looks at how having teachers from backgrounds similar to their students’ impacts other aspects of the students’ educational experience, including “academic perceptions and attitudes about … teachers and classrooms.” Her preliminary findings are that “students who share racial and/or gender characteristics with their teachers tend to report higher levels of personal effort, happiness in class, feeling cared for, student-teacher communication, post-secondary motivation, and academic engagement.”

These outcomes, she said, may be the result of “demographically similar” teachers taking on the role of mentors, holding higher expectations for their students and employing “targeted instructional approaches” that result from shared cultural knowledge. Vilson has written about an example of this: When teaching a class on percentages to Latino students, he got them to think about how “centavo,” the word for cent in Spanish, shares the same linguistic root as percent in English, and how they both relate to portions of 100. Their faces lit up with understanding.

Still, Ingersoll noted, much of the research findings to date have come from studies that look at minorities as a group, or black students and teachers, and not at Hispanics. “There’s assumptions we make that we don’t have an empirical base for about Latino students and teachers,” he said.

“When you look at the history of this nation, inequity has affected African-American students the longest,” said Delgado. “Especially in cities in the South, where there weren’t that many Latinos, the conversation has fallen along black-white lines — and so have research and programs. Now the situation has changed so quickly — not just in Tennessee, but in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky …

“I would prefer there to be more research on Hispanics,” she said. “It could prove what we know to be anecdotally true.”

Related: Are paraprofessionals the answer to the nation’s shortage of bilingual teachers?

One reason the gap between the numbers of minority teachers and minority students persists is because minority teachers leave the profession at higher rates than white teachers. “I can’t see the gap being closed until we tackle the retention issue,” Ingersoll said. “It’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes.”

“As Hispanics, we have other things to offer students. In our experiences, our struggles. Hispanic students can identify with me, and non-Hispanic students can broaden their minds about the world.”

Delgado hopes the Pionero Scholars program will encourage graduates to stick with teaching by providing a number of supports and incentives, including financial ones. The program includes a $10,000 annual scholarship. (The tuition “sticker price” at Lipscomb this fall is $27,472 per year.) Students are chosen from local high schools, and Lipscomb has an agreement with those same schools that includes a pledge to hire graduates from the program.

Hispanic teacher
Alondra Piña Mota and Nalexandro Cubero Crespo, students in Lipscomb University’s new Pionero Scholars program, talk over coffee at the Bennett Campus Center. Credit: Timothy Pratt

Delgado also plans to meet weekly with her students throughout the school year, to talk with them about their transition to college, what they’re learning and what it all means to them. The idea is to help the first-generation college students to feel less isolated and to support them when they face challenges. “The first thing the students said to me when they visited the campus was, ‘There’s a lot of white people here,’ ” she said, laughing. Most of their fellow students in high school were black, Hispanic, or immigrants from a host of countries. After recruiting the students for the program’s first cohort, as well as helping them through the application and financial aid process, Delgado has developed a close relationship with the students, partially due to her own background as the daughter of a Cuban immigrant. This connection is strengthened by seemingly small details, like being the first authority figure to pronounce their names correctly.

The program doesn’t obligate students to stay with education as a major, but changing majors means losing the scholarship. If they make it through the four-year program, Delgado plans to provide mentors from the field of education to guide them through their first two years of teaching. “That would be critical to our long-term success,” she said. “The goal would be to help get them at least into their third year of teaching.”

Alondra Piña Mota said some of her former classmates are surprised when she tells them she wants to be a teacher. She graduated with a 3.63 GPA. They tell her, “You could be a doctor with that GPA.” She replies, “Teachers teach future doctors.”

Her mother, who works in the kitchen at a Chuck E. Cheese’s franchise, has told her, “Get a job where you like getting up in the morning. Not like me.”

Nalexandro Cubero Crespo is eager to stand in front of a classroom someday. “The whole purpose of education is not just to learn about a new subject, but to find out about who you are, and what you want to do in life.

“As Hispanics, we have other things to offer students,” he added. “In our experiences, our struggles. Hispanic students can identify with me, and non-Hispanic students can broaden their minds about the world.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Teacher Preparation.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Nalexandro Cubero Crespo’s name.

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