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Buffalo looks to own students to diversify teaching force

A growing chorus of educators reaffirms that diversity in the teaching ranks benefits all students.

There's just one problem: Even as student populations become more diverse, the teaching force remains stubbornly homogeneous. In the Buffalo Public Schools, for example, although 67 percent of students are black or Hispanic, 85 percent of teachers are white.

Now, local education leaders hope to change that with a new program aimed at diversifying the city's teaching ranks.

The Buffalo school district is partnering with the Buffalo Teachers Federation and SUNY Buffalo State on a new program that will recruit students while they are still in high school and offer them incentives to pursue a career in education.

Students who finish the program will be given preference for jobs in the city schools – in exchange for a five-year commitment to teach in Buffalo once they graduate.

Leaders from the three organizations will officially announce the program Monday.

"We're looking for star students who recognize and appreciate diversity as Buffalo's greatest strength," said Will Keresztes, the district's chief of intergovernmental affairs, planning and community engagement. "They're the ideal future teachers that parents want for their children and they'd rather be nowhere else than in a Buffalo classroom."

Diversity in the teaching ranks has become a concern all over the country, especially as school districts struggle to close achievement gaps between racial groups.

Some educators believe that minority teachers may be better equipped to understand the cultural and social backgrounds students bring with them into the classroom, and better able help them navigate challenges that are unique to their communities.

Proponents also argue that minority teachers serve as important role models for young people of color, while also exposing white students to people of color in positions of authority.

"There has been a lot of research about teachers who have shared experiences with the students," said Kathy Wood, associate dean in the School of Education at SUNY Buffalo State. "And there's always been a shortage of those well-qualified teachers to go into urban schools – and stay in urban schools."

[RELATED: District leaders look for boost for Buffalo schools in state budget]

The discussion comes at a time when the nation's student body is becoming more diverse, with one analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data showing that students of color now make up more than 45 percent of the school population. And the student population will likely continue becoming more diverse, with the population of minority children under the age of 5 now surpassing white children.

Meanwhile, teachers of color make up just 17.5 percent of the national educator workforce.

“Without question, when the majority of students in public schools are students of color and only 18 percent of our teachers are teachers of color, we have an urgent need to act," former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Jr. remarked last year during a speech at Howard University.

"We’ve got to understand that all students benefit from teacher diversity," he added. "We have strong evidence that students of color benefit from having teachers and leaders who look like them as role models and also benefit from the classroom dynamics that diversity creates. But it is also important for our white students to see teachers of color in leadership roles in their classrooms and communities. The question for the nation is how do we address this quickly and thoughtfully?”

Part of the problem is that college campuses also tend to be predominantly white, and minority students tend to not pursue degrees in education. A study by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education showed that 80 percent of the bachelor's degrees in 2010 were earned by white students.

Those behind the push in Buffalo believe they can start to solve the problem by tapping into a largely underutilized resource – the district's own diverse student body.

The Urban Teacher Academy will welcome its first class in September, allowing ninth-graders to take career-focused classes that introduce them to the teaching profession. The program will be based at McKinley High School.

In high school, students will learn about topics such as special education and teaching in an urban school setting. They will get field experience in Buffalo classrooms, be matched with a mentor already working in the school system and graduate from high school with 12 college credits. The high school component also is in line with the statewide push for career-focused programs.

Students who want to go on to become teachers will receive a full-tuition scholarship at SUNY Buffalo State, along with financial assistance for room and board.

Upon graduating from college, the students will get preference for jobs in the district, so long as they commit to working in the city schools for at least five years.

"It's the whole package," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. "The purpose of this is to offer all of the supports to students so we can get more diversity in the teaching ranks."

[RELATED: Diversity still a challenge at City Honors, despite recent efforts]

Other school districts have developed "grow your own" models, but those behind the Buffalo plan believe it could be the first in the country that starts in high school and leads students directly to employment with the district.

"Our partnership combines early preparation with scholarship assistance and priority employment in the district," Keresztes said. "It's a great opportunity for students who imagine themselves as great teachers."

The district has made diversifying its teaching ranks a priority since Kriner Cash became superintendent. Other efforts include a mentoring partnership with Medgar Evers College and calling on local colleges and universities to adopt programs geared at preparing graduates to teach in urban settings.

"We're well on our way to providing highly effective teachers to go back into Buffalo public schools," Wood said. "Then they will get a new generation of students excited to go into teaching and the cycle will start again."

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