Topeka’s TCALC should be model for improving teacher diversity, education secretary says

It was years before Misael Hernandez ever had a teacher who had the same color of skin that he did.

So when the Hispanic student did find one in a teacher from a neighboring classroom, Hernandez was astounded at the level of familiarity and support that teacher was able to provide him, even if he wasn’t her direct student.

That kind of feeling of a classroom “family” is what Hernandez hopes to bring as a Hispanic future teacher.

“I don’t want other people to go through what I had to go through,” said Hernandez, a student in the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning and Careers’ Teaching as a Profession pathway.

Hernandez and several other students were part of a panel Tuesday that hosted U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona as he embarks on a multistate “Raise The Bar” tour of public schools.

The bus tour, which kicked off in Topeka, is meant to showcase various ways local schools are pushing themselves to boost student achievement.

Education secretary Miguel Cardona highlights teacher diversity in Topeka stop

In Topeka, Cardona focused on teacher diversity, and he toured TCALC and the Brown v. Board National Historical Park.

In Topeka USD 501, only about 10% of teachers are nonwhite, despite almost two in three district students being minorities. That’s not markedly different from national data, which shows that about 80% of teachers are white despite only 47% of U.S. students also being white.

To help address that gap, USD 501 has focused its efforts on a “grow your own” program that encourages students from the predominantly minority district to consider teaching as a career, and potentially return to work at the district.

The Teaching as a Profession pathway at TCALC puts together high school students from USD 501’s high schools to learn about pedagogy and get hands-on experience working with and teaching younger students.

Speaking to a panel of Teaching as a Profession students at the historic site, Cardona said schools across the country can and should emulate the TCALC program to help bolster the diversity among their teaching ranks.

“Brown v. Board 69 years ago gave us an opportunity to not only make sure that our students are in diverse learning environments but also gave us the challenge, as a country, to diversify the profession,” he said.

“Segregation didn’t end that day. We know that education is the great equalizer, and education will combat ignorance. Your stories and your experiences and why you want to get into the profession is a direct reflection of what Brown v. Board was trying to do.”

Lack of teacher respect can be barrier to increased diversity

Students on the panel, as well as teachers on a separate panel, told Cardona that some of the barriers they face or faced in getting into education included lack of current diversity in teaching, poor pay or even a negative perception of teaching as a profession.

Ainsley Sha-Win Schimmel, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and a recent TCALC graduate, told Cardona that school leaders often emphasize putting students first in all contexts.

But that can come at the expense of considering the experiences and needs of teachers, the future educator said, especially as educators deal with second-hand trauma in working with students who were deeply affected by the pandemic.

“The people in front of the desk are just as important as the people behind,” Sha-Win Schimmel said.

TCALC’s Teaching as a Profession program can be national model, secretary says

Speaking to reporters after the panels, Cardona said he was impressed by the program and wants to see more schools around the country emulate it.

He lauded the students’ enthusiasm and understanding in entering a profession that often seems under political attack.

“There are folks who are trying to make a name for themselves by trying to divide public education or attack and critique it,” he said. “We’re here trying to raise the bar, and we do that by lifting up the stories of students who are in programs to become teachers and lifting up the stories of teachers who got into the profession.”

Part of increasing respect for teachers has to involve increasing pay, he said. At average salaries of $40,130 for starting teachers and $54,988 across all teachers, Kansas ranks Nos. 34 and 35, respectively, for teacher salary in the country, according to data collected by the National Education Association.

Topeka USD 501 superintendent Tiffany Anderson added her support for policy makers to increase support for teacher diversity by expanding programs that help pay for college tuition and funding to raise teacher salaries.

“I still believe that the teaching profession should be the highest paid profession there is,” Anderson said, “because it is the one profession that saves lives year after year and leads to the doctors, lawyers and many different professions that exist beyond just education.”

One of the more practical steps schools can take to improve diversity, though, has to start inside their buildings, said Diane Kimsey, an educator who co-leads the Teaching as a Pathway program.

“We need to start today with educating kids, and getting them positive hands-on experiences, so that when they do join the job market, and hopefully our district, they’re ready,” she said.

TCALC is a CAPS Network affiliate program.

More information and images on Secretary Cardona’s visit are available courtesy of the Topeka Capital-Journal here.