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What happens when Latinos teach Latinos: The innovative ways LA schools are closing the stubborn teacher gap

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | December 14, 2016



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Alumni Teach Project resident Celena Alvarado teaches at Lakeview Charter Academy. (Courtesy: PUC Schools)

As the numbers of Latino students continue to grow at LA Unified, the need for Latino teachers also increases. Some Los Angeles schools are using their own methods to close the gap between Latino students and teachers.

Two of the innovators are PUC Schools, with its alumni teachers program, and UCLA Community School, a pilot school that has been able to maintain for the last seven years a teaching staff in which 70 percent are teachers of color, the majority of them Latino.

Currently at PUC Schools, which are independent charter schools that serve mainly Latino children from the San Fernando Valley and northeast Los Angeles, all new resident teachers are Latino and PUC alumni, and most were the first in their families to attend college.

“There are many things I’m proud of in co-founding PUC schools, but one of the things I’m most proud of is this idea that I had that was built around my belief that we want our kids to go as far as possible, go to college and then come back to uplift their communities,” said Ref Rodriguez, a Los Angeles Unified board member and co-founder of PUC Schools.

And now with PUC’s returning its alumni to the classroom, Rodriguez believes what they’re doing well is “encouraging kids of color to come into the teaching profession. That is a game changer.”

The Alumni Teach Project started in 2012 with a couple of students who after graduating college decided to pursue a career in teaching. So PUC decided to start a teaching residence program, and since then it has grown to 13 teachers who are qualified to work in the classroom, having obtained their teaching credential through a collaboration with Loyola Marymount University. Ten more alums are now being mentored in the classroom, so it is expected that by the end of the year, PUC will have a total of 23 teachers coming out of the program.

“All of them are Latino. The majority of them are first-generation immigrant, and also first-generation college graduate,” said Leslie Chang, superintendent of instruction and leadership at PUC Schools. Chang is also a first-generation immigrant and the first college graduate in her family. She was born in Nicaragua and raised in Los Angeles by an immigrant Nicaraguan mother and Chinese father.

“Their stories are personal for me. I come from the neighborhood in northeast LA, and I want to make sure that the students we’re serving are getting the best-quality teachers. We believe in diversity and we want our students to have access to all kind of teachers,” she said.

As an LA Unified board member, Rodriguez recognizes the importance of having more Latino teachers and teachers of color. “Many kids going to our schools are in a classrooms culture, even a language, that is foreign to them, that is not connected to everyday life. What we know now more than ever is that kids learn what matters to them, and kids also learn when they can relate to the content and when they can apply it to their lives.”

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(Courtesy: PUC Schools)

According to a report on teacher diversity by the Center for American Progress, in LA Unified 74 percent of students are Latino, while about 34 percent of the teachers have the same ethnicity. At a state level, the gap is wider. In California, 54 percent of students are Latino, compared with 19 percent of teachers.

Rodriguez said schools need more of those individuals that students can relate to, making the learning process faster for them because they share the same background and can build trust easier. “It’s important we encourage them, we need more teachers period. We need people from the same community that is being served to start filling those roles.”

About the future of the Alumni Teach Project, Chang assured that this is a long-term commitment from PUC Schools, and she thinks it won’t go away as long as they have their own alumni or members of the community wanting to teach within their own community. PUC has 17 charter schools, including one in New York and one opening its doors next school year in San Fernando. It serves about 5,000 students, and over 95 percent are Latino.

“It feels great, students are excited to learn. It’s just amazing to see that some of the kids that I taught now are in the teacher seat. It’s really coming full circle, and I think this is a game changer in terms of community transformation,” Chang said.

UCLA Community School is one of the six autonomous pilot schools at the Robert F. Kennedy Complex, serving a student population of more 1,000 students. There, 78 percent are Latino and 13 percent are Asian, and teachers of color represent the overwhelming majority of the faculty.

“Over 45 percent of our teachers are Latino, and 33 percent Asian, and 23 percent white. Also,  88 percent of our teachers are bilingual,” said Queena Kim, assistant principal at UCLA Community School. This school enrolls more transient and immigrant students than the district as a whole. About two-thirds of the residents in the school’s neighborhood are foreign-born, primarily from Mexico, Central America and Korea. “The faculty is bringing a wealth of cultural knowledge to their work with students and families.”

Last school year, the K-12 school that opened its doors to the Central LA-Koreatown community in 2009 had a faculty composed of 49 full-time teachers, half of them UCLA alumni. Kim shared that teachers who had applied for just a few hours of work and were coming from other schools in the district indicated they wanted to become part of the school model. Since then, more than 90 of the teachers have stayed with the school. This is one of the 52 pilot schools in LA Unified. Pilot schools have autonomy over budget, staffing, governance, curriculum, assessment and the school calendar. These autonomies allow them to operate with greater flexibility.

According to “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education” report by the Albert Shanker Institute, the biggest obstacle to teacher diversity nationwide is attrition, with teachers of color leaving because they do not feel they have a voice in school decisions and they feel that they lack autonomy.

Organizations such as Teach for America (TFA) Los Angeles have also been working in recent years toward increasing diversity among its teacher corps. Every year since 2012 more than half the LA corps has identified as people of color, and almost 80 percent identified as people of color both in 2015 and 2016.

“We do need to have the majority of teachers that share the background of the students they serve, which means having a robust pipeline of Latino teachers is going to be really important — in general people of color that represent the background of the kids we serve,” said Lida Jennings, executive director for TFA Los Angeles. 

In the 2016 TFA corps, about 40 percent identified as Latino, more than 10 percent identified as multi-ethnic, more than 10 percent as Asian Americans, and just under 10 percent identified as African-American. Nearly 800 corps members and alumni in Los Angeles currently teach more than 65,000 students every day at LA Unified and independent charter schools.

“We have seen proof that when students see themselves in their teachers, if that teacher had similar experiences and can talk to them about the circumstances they’re facing inside and outside school, we then see the relationship between students and teachers forms much faster,” achieving better outcomes “much faster because of that strong relationship,” Jennings said.

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