By Cleo Krejci, Iowa City Press-Citizen
Sumina Gajmer works on an assignment about stereotypes and prejudice in the “Dream to Teach” class Wednesday at Central Campus in Des Moines. The program, begun in 2014, is intended to diversify the teaching profession in Iowa, where just 2.8% of K-12 educators are people of color.
When Lesllie Perez joined a program at her Des Moines high school intended to set her on a path to become a teacher, she quickly learned about the research showing students will be more successful if they see themselves reflected in the staff.
She also learned about the data: The Des Moines Independent Community School District has 65% students of color but just 7.5% teachers of color.
“I realized, ‘Yeah, I never really had a teacher — probably like, one — that looked like me throughout my entire schooling experience in DMPS.’ And I realized populations are changing, there’s going to be more students of color in the future, and I want to be the change I never really had when I was a student,” said Perez, who is Hispanic.
“Pipeline” programs like Dream to Teach in Des Moines, which helped get Perez on her way to a teaching degree at Grand View University, are one way Iowa school districts are addressing shortages in teachers of color.
But the issue goes beyond the work of one district, or even a handful of them.
The percentage of teachers of color in Iowa has remained essentially stagnant in the past two decades — from 1.8% of the total workforce of K-12 public teachers in 2000 to 2.8% in 2021. In that same time frame, enrollment of students of color has risen from 9.7% to 26.1%, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education.
The “Dream to Teach” program that Perez enrolled in has a specific goal: addressing the gap between student and teacher demographics in the Des Moines school system.
It’s what allowed Perez to take college credits, get classroom teaching experience and take on social justice projects while she was in high school. It simplified her transition to Grand View University, where she’s a now senior. Her aspiration is to be an elementary teacher with a focus on Spanish and English as a Second Language.
Since the Des Moines program, which began in 2014, recruits students while they are still in middle and high school, the first entrants are now just beginning to graduate college with teaching degrees. Perez, who was born in Mexico and grew up in Des Moines, will be guaranteed a job interview within the Des Moines school district.
Across all staff in Des Moines, not just teachers, 18.4% identify as people of color. The district has a sister program called the “3D Coalition” that funnels education staff without teaching degrees into the profession.
Jennifer Chung, who oversees the “3D Coalition” at Drake University, said the programs aren’t just beneficial for getting more kids of color to see themselves represented in the classroom. It is also good for white kids to have non-white teachers.
“It starts at a young age, learning implicit biases and stereotypes,” Chung said. “And so I think seeing people of color in teaching positions and other positions of power is really powerful, not just for students of color, but for all students.”
But change will not come from just attracting teachers of color. The bigger challenge may be retaining them.
A 2021 paper by University of Iowa researchers focused on the well-documented national data showing teachers of color are far more likely to leave the profession than white colleagues.
The paper argued that it’s the school climates in which teachers of color find themselves — including race-based stress or being expected to take on racial activism, along with their teaching duties — that points to a need to make school cultures more equitable in order to ensure teachers of color want to stick around after they’re recruited.
Ain Grooms, the lead researcher on the UI paper, said, of course, it’s necessary to increase the numbers of teachers of color in the Iowa school system. But it’s also necessary for educators to think about the environments teachers of color will work in, and policies within the public school system that have been shown to disproportionately target children of color.
“There needs to be concerted effort across multiple policy landscapes; not only in hiring, but in mentoring, in support and advancement, and things like that. But also in communities. How do we discuss race and racism in communities broadly?” she said.
‘We are having a hard time’: Need for teachers of color not just in metro areas
Some of the most racially diverse districts in Iowa are in small towns.
In Postville, for example, about 70% of students are people of color compared to just 1.3% of teachers.
Tim Dugger, superintendent of schools in the northeast Iowa town, said that in his 22 years of administration, he’s had only one applicant of color. There are 77 teachers in the district; one of them is Hispanic.
“There are very few teachers looking for work, in general. We are having a hard time finding people to even apply to be teachers for us. Our work to hire people of color would be a good process, if there were applicants of color,” Dugger wrote in an email.
In the Columbus school district, where 72% of students are people of color, less than 10% of the certified school staff are people of color.
Still, that’s progress for Superintendent Jeff Maeder.
“When I was here seven or eight years ago, I could probably count on one hand the number of non-white staff members. Now, we’re in the double digits,” Maeder said. “As far as teaching, it’s not as high as what we’d like… we would like to see a more reflective staff of what our demographic breakdown is.”
A task force of educators at the state level is expected to release a report about increasing the diversity of teachers in Iowa by Wednesday. That report, presented to the governor, Legislature and State Board of Education, is to include “methods to attract, engage, and retain” teachers that “reflects the growing diverse population of students across Iowa, both rural and urban.”
Iowa City will offer teaching positions to students, tuition assistance for staff
Some districts are beginning to launch programs now, including Iowa City. The district set a goal in 2015 of ensuring 15% of its teachers would be people of color by 2020. It only got halfway there. The current total is 7.5%.
The district has averaged about 100 new teacher hires each year out of a total teaching staff of about 1,100. Demographic information for new teachers show the district is making progress toward a more racially diverse workforce, with 10% or more of new teachers hired annually since 2017 identifying as people of color.
Iowa City is in the midst of solidifying a three-pronged “Grow Your Own” program to diversity its workforce. One arm of the program is for support staff looking to become teachers and will offer them 50% of tuition reimbursement for two years, capped at $5,000 per year.
“When you look at the return on the investment, if those 10 individuals become teachers, the return on that investment is very high for us,” said Chace Ramey, Iowa City’s deputy superintendent.
The program recently received a $50,000 donation from GreenState Credit Union.
While it’s still in the planning stages, the district will also offer a program for high school students looking to become teachers. If the students successfully complete it and obtain teaching degrees, they will be guaranteed a teaching position in Iowa City.
Iowa City’s “Grow Your Own” program appears unique in the state in that it takes on a pipeline program not only of teachers, but administrators. Statewide, 98.5% of superintendents are white and 87.6% are male, according to a 2021 DOE report.
A cohort of 14 Iowa City teachers is going through a two-year professional development program focused on administrative leadership. The fellowship for teachers will use federal COVID-19 relief money, as part of the goal is to fight pandemic-related learning loss, Ramey said.
Grooms, the UI researcher, said diversifying the administrative ranks is an important step. She said it should not be the responsibility of educators of color to diversify the workforce — it falls on all school leaders to be concerned with issues of equity.
“If there were no teachers of color in the state of Iowa, we (would) still need to be having conversations around equity and inclusion and not just around race, but around all forms of identity,” she said. “While I, of course, agree pipeline programs are important, it still remains that there are more white educators in the state. So there has to be more of an effort from white educators to say, ‘We need to make our schools and our communities more inclusive.'”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the percentage of teachers in the Postville district who were educators of color. The correct figure is 1.3%.
Cleo Krejci covers education for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. You can reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter via @_CleoKrejci.