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Peoria-area school administrators commend ISBE’s commitment to develop more teachers of color

Peoria-area school administrators say the Illinois State Board of Education's $2 million initiative to support and attract teachers of color will assist local efforts to improve diversity.
Peoria-area school administrators say the Illinois State Board of Education's $2 million initiative to support and attract teachers of color will assist local efforts to improve diversity.

The Illinois State Board of Education is putting $2 million toward a program to support and retain more teachers of color, and Peoria-area administrators see it as a welcome step toward improving diversity in the schools.

Dr. Alexander Ikejiaku, Peoria Public Schools Associate Superintendent for Human Resources, says the approach ISBE is taking will put together a “think tank” of educators and consultants to explore why it’s hard to attract minority teachers and keep them in the system.

“The consistent theme in there is what they refer to as “affinity groups” – being able to build an affinity group for teachers of color so that they don't appear to be alone on the island when they're in districts, or even in the state,” said Ikejiaku, noting that about 7% of PPS teachers are Black, while other minority groups make up about 10 percent.

“We know from experience and research that relationships matter; individuals gravitate towards others who are in the same community, who have common goals and common endeavors. So we're looking forward to what that will produce, and hopefully they will gather enough diverse individuals to create a program that will be a support structure for teachers of color in this state and in our local area.”

Peoria County Regional Superintendent of Schools Beth Crider says studies show the best way to assist new teachers is to give them a group of colleagues they can work with and share their classroom experiences.

“It's very close to what might be called mentoring, but it's this idea of supporting one another on the journey as you are a beginning teacher to working up that expertise,” said Crider. “So this is a deliberate way of putting people together that might need extra supports, if they are not the dominant group in the school.”

Ikejiaku says one challenge administrators face in trying to boost diversity is an overall teacher shortage, with not as many people going into the education profession anymore.

“So there's a proportional impact not only for general teaching candidates but also candidates of color,” he said. “Teacher prep programs do not turn out as many candidates anymore; few go in, and even fewer finish.

“And in recent times, in the past couple of years, COVID has not made things any easier with regards to recruiting teachers in general, and of course that will also apply to teachers of color. So right now, the phrase out there is that the teacher shortage in general should be treated as a crisis.”

Crider says having more teachers of color is important for developing empathy, compassion, and well-rounded critical thinking skills.

“I've always subscribed to the notion of: ‘if you can see it, you can be it,’” said Crider. “Research shows that children of color – Black students, Asian students, anyone that shows up in the schoolhouse – need to see someone that looks like them, and they should not have to wait until they are in middle school or high school.

“I have heard experiences of Black children that don't see a Black teacher till they're in sixth or seventh grade, and that's just too late. They need to see people that look like them, that they can identify with, that understand them and where they're coming from. Then having diversity of experiences and of approaches in the classroom, that's good for all students at all ages.”

Ikejiaku says District 150 has been engaging in specialized recruitment efforts in attempt to bring more diversity to its faculty.

“One of the areas of emphasis is the HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) relationships that we've been trying to foster for the past three years, having our recruiters travel to HBCUs and trying to see if we can get a pipeline going,” said Ikejiaku, who also touted the district’s “Grow Your Own” teacher development program.

“Individuals in the community who have interest in teaching, we court them and work with them to get them through certification so that they can come into the pipeline and begin to teach in our schools. And we basically look around for any candidate that we would basically find suitable, who's also a diversity candidate, that we can encourage to pursue teaching.”

He says an important thing they focus on in regard to attracting teachers is giving them a sense of community in the district.

“There's also emphasis on ‘quote-unquote’ working conditions. We here at Peoria Public Schools are doing everything we can to make sure that the working conditions of teachers are better,” he said. “Of course, I know that most people, when they think of attracting somebody, think of salary. Well, yeah, that's there; however, (teachers) say that autonomy and independence when they come in also make a difference in terms of them staying and in terms of them hearing about you and being attracted to you.”

ISBE is also establishing a $4 million grant to build a pipeline of bilingual educators. Ikejiaku says any assistance PPS can get from the state for their English language learning (ELL) instruction would be greatly appreciated.

“We have two locations where we have a dual language program that is oversubscribed,” he said. “So there's no doubt that any funding that we get from ISBE to help that program along will help us expand and meet the needs.”

Crider says anything that speeds up the process of getting teachers who speak multiple languages into the classrooms faster is a boost.

“Any research you read on students that speak English as their second language just reiterates that they have a strength in their native language and they need to build the skill towards English,” she said. “To be able to do that, we need teachers that are highly skilled in getting that process going and to facilitate it very, very quickly to make these students successful.”

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.