GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Amid a nationwide teacher shortage, there’s another problem: a lack of teachers of color. Two West Michigan universities are going to the source to help change that.

“When it comes to teachers of color, it becomes a bigger issue because you want to be at a place where you feel supported and have people that look like you. When the numbers are low, you don’t have that built-in support system,” Regena Nelson, a professor of childhood education at Western Michigan University, said.

Western Michigan is working to create that support structure through its Urban Teacher Residency Program, which started last summer. The WMU College of Education and Human Development, Benton Harbor Area Schools and Kalamazoo Public Schools are recruiting and preparing teacher assistants to become certified elementary teachers. The goal of the 12-month program is to increase the number of certified teachers, increase retention rates, ensure program graduates have the necessary professional development and recruit more teachers of color.

“It’s not to say that white teachers aren’t qualified to work with students of color. It’s that teachers of color bring an extra value added because they understand the experiences of the students that they’re working with,” Nelson said.

Nelson believes the program removes the barriers to becoming certified. Participants receive a $20,000 stipend.

“They all have bachelor’s degrees, but in order to take those certification classes at WMU, they would have to come to campus during the day, which wasn’t a good fit for them,” she said. “Second, it costs a lot of money to go back to school and our program would require them to start working.”

Between BHPS and KPS, there are a number of staff members of color who aren’t certified but have the desire to get their license, Nelson said.

Koretta King-Jackson is one of the participants in the program’s inaugural class. She spent two years as a substitute teacher and was introduced to the program last year. She is one of approximately 20 assistant teachers that will graduate with their master’s degrees this summer.

Without the residency program, she said, “I would’ve had to do two and half years of college and pay for that on my own.”

Grand Valley State University and K-Connect are still laying the foundations for a similar initiative, but a group has already started a program to address recruitment and retention concerns for preschool through 12th grade educators of color in Grand Rapids Public Schools.

“I think it’s time to put some things in place so we can really make some change,” Keenan King, director of system building for K-Connect, said.

King is among three diverse educators who are part of the Steelcase Innovation Fellowship. The group was awarded $5,000 to develop ideas. They have a three-pronged approach:

  • Create an educator of color network to introduce middle school and high school students to the profession.
  • Support preservice teachers who are learning about the profession and help them get the necessary training and development.
  • Connect veteran teachers with preservice teachers to participate in mentoring.

“It’s kind of a way to strengthen the pathway from entrance while you’re training and then even more support while you’re in the field,” Chastity Bailey-Fakhoury, an associate professor of educational foundations at GVSU, said.

While the universities are doing what they can to add more teachers of color to the field, educators believe it’s going to take some help from the state, too.

“The state needs to find funding and pipeline for people that want to do this. The numbers would increase exponentially,” Nelson said.