Angela Rubin’s teaching license was no good once she moved to Madison in 2007. Rubin, who moved from Brazil, couldn’t afford to keep studying and get a teaching license here, so she spent several years as a bilingual resource specialist in Madison’s school district.
Then she got accepted into a new program from the district, called Grow Our Own, that helps pay for its minority staff to become teachers. Now, Rubin is certified as a teacher and is working on a bilingual teaching certification—and she just wrapped up her second year of teaching at Lincoln Elementary School.
“I know that if I didn’t have the program or somebody that could give me the support that they gave me, I wouldn’t be able to teach,” Rubin says.
Rubin and the Grow Our Own program reflect an effort from the Madison Metropolitan School District to diversify its workforce across the board—an issue that districts across the nation struggle with. In 2013, only 11.5 percent of MMSD teachers were minorities, compared to 55 percent of the district’s minority students.
The district also struggles with diversity at the staff and administrator level, which June Glennon, MMSD’s director of employment, says it’s trying to address.
“We understand the more diverse your workforce at every level of the organization, the better your decision making, the better you’re going to represent the interests of the children in the district,” Glennon says. “We want people at the table at all levels of the organization.”
The lack of diversity partly stems from where MMSD hires its teachers from, according to a study from the Cross & Joftus consulting firm.
The largest source of teachers hired at MMSD comes from University of Wisconsin-Madison’s education school, where 81 percent of the students are white, which creates “a limited pipeline” for the district, the study found.
School board member Ed Hughes notes these difficulties in hiring a diverse workforce.
“The pool of applicants we have to consider tend to be not very diverse themselves … so it’s not as if there is one fully diverse pool of candidates out there that we’re ignoring for some reason,” Hughes says.
The district could implement a strategy of recruiting nationwide, the study suggested, but Glennon says it’s difficult for MMSD to recruit outside the Midwest, as those who can actually locate Madison on a map often don’t want to move here.
“You’re not going to bring people from Georgia or Florida,” Glennon says. “They love those states and the warm weather, and they have this notion of Wisconsin as always being in a deep freeze.”
For now, Glennon says, the district is working on its messaging when recruiting, emphasizing the chance teachers would get to “make a difference and close the achievement gap.” And it’s also further developing its Grow Our Own program, with its most recent version training students for two years at UW-Madison so they can get a teaching license.
But even addressing those diversity numbers isn’t enough for school districts like Madison to solve their achievement gaps.
Colleen Capper, an educational policy professor at UW-Madison, says school districts need to support their minority teachers and ensure they aren’t just stuck in the most difficult classrooms. Districts also need to ensure all teachers take students’ backgrounds into account while teaching — a method called culturally responsive teaching that MMSD is pushing.
Another crucial factor, Capper says, is that all teachers need to “fundamentally believe that every single child can go on to college.”
As Cross & Joftus pointed out, teachers in the district differed from principals in how much they agreed that “all children can learn at high levels.” While 82 percent of principals strongly agreed with that statement, only 56 percent of teachers strongly agreed, with 39 percent of teachers agreeing and 5 percent disagreeing.
“Yes, we need to have more leaders and teachers of color—absolutely,” Capper says. “And we have to be aggressive in recruiting, and at the same time, we have to be really working on racial development of all the staff in our district.”
To help address this, the district has developed a “Great Teaching Framework” that is built partly off responses from a focus group of high school students. Those students asked the district to set “high and clear expectations for all students,” as well as understand the students’ diverse backgrounds.
The district has pushed that before, but having a more concrete plan behind the effort has been “the glue that’s really pulled things together” in the framework’s first year, says Cynthia Green, MMSD’s executive director of curriculum and assessment.
“We want to ensure that we look at all the assets that students are bringing, whether it’s their linguistic assets their cultural assets—and really help teachers to leverage that in the classroom,” Green says.
Similar efforts, Capper says, have proven effective and are needed beyond just increasing diversity of staff, noting that “white teachers can be excellent instructors of kids of color,” as well.
And for Rubin—who now teaches both white and minority students in a dual language classroom—having a similar background as some of her students has helped in the classroom.
“A lot of the students that are also considered minorities really identify with me, and they actually sometimes are more motivated to learn because they say, ‘She gets it. She’s Latina too,’” Rubin says. “And that’s what is important, is that students have role models that they think are just like them.”