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Bringing A Cultural Consciousness To the Classroom

University of Northern Colorado partners with local schools to provide teacher role models for growing Hispanic population.

By Dina Horwedel

The town of Greeley, perched on northern Colorado’s prairie, is like

many other communities across the United States that are experiencing an influx of immigrants. In fact, Greeley’s overall population has doubled since 2002. Since its founding as a farming community in 1870, Greeley has grown to include high-tech, computer manufacturing, insurance, retail and construction industries, all of which require educated workers. But its low cost of living, easy access to the mountains and mild climate continue to draw immigrants from Mexico, and Central and South America.

The picturesque town of 85,000 people had a 30 percent minority population as of the 2000 U.S. Census. Estimates place that figurecloser to 40 percent today, most of whom are Hispanic. Less than 1 percent of the city’s residents list themselves as Black or American Indian, and only 1.15 percent checked the Asian/Pacific Islander box. With the town’s current demographics, it was only natural that the University of Northern Colorado, located in Greeley, is training its teacher education students to help educate the region’s growing Hispanic population.

In addition to UNC, Colorado educators and policy makers are working hard to welcome Hispanic students into the state’s colleges and universities, and are starting with teacher education programs as a means to recruit and retain Hispanic students at all educational levels.

A Language-Based Approach
“Cumbres” (Spanish for “peaks”), founded by UNC’s Hispanic Alumni Partnership, is a teacher education program that seeks to reach students who are committed to working with Hispanic school children in the public schools. Students in the program start together as freshmen, taking core courses each year to prepare them for their primary areas of teacher certification. But their education goes further. In addition to the standard teacher education coursework, Cumbres students are also studying Bilingual Education or Teaching English as a Second Language. The goal is to be able to reach school children who may be bilingual or primarily Spanish speakers.

Linda Carbajal, director of Cumbres, says the program has doubled its numbers in the past eight years, now training 150 UNC students. She says it is a model unlike any other in higher education.

“The founders’ original intent was to recruit Hispanic students and keep them in college to serve as teachers to improve Hispanic kids’ graduation rates and test scores in high school,” Carbajal says. “Our goal now is to recruit, retain and graduate excellent teachers who are passionate about education. … We want teachers who will want to work with every kid that comes to their class, regardless. Every kid must get 100 percent from our teachers.” The program has been expanded to include all teacher candidates who meet these criteria.

Cumbres graduates have a 100 percent job placement rate after graduation and average five job offers, Carbajal says. She is already fielding calls from Colorado schools recruiting students who will graduate in December. With skilled role models in their K-12 classrooms, she says the academic success of Hispanic students will benefit the students, their families, the Hispanic community and Colorado as a whole.

From Preschool to Graduate School
Dr. Elizabeth Parmalee, executive director of the Colorado Partnership for Educational Renewal (CoPER), a consortium of school districts, four-year colleges, universities and the Colorado Community Colleges System, says teachers that reflect the demographics of a particular community are important role models and mentors for minority students because they bring a cultural consciousness to the classroom.

But according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, minority teachers are rare. Only 7 percent of teachers in Colorado are Hispanic in a state that has a 17 percent Hispanic population. Nationally, about one-third of public school students are members of racial and ethnic minority groups, and by 2035 that number is projected to climb above 50 percent. Yet less than 14 percent of teachers are minorities, and 40 percent of American schools have no minority teachers.

Parmalee says this may be rooted in several factors.

“Students who perform strongly in math and sciences have other attractive career options,” she says. “And students of promise are often wooed into other fields.” In addition, minority students often do not have good academic experiences at the hands of non-minority teachers, and “not surprisingly, would not want to choose that environment for a career,” Parmalee adds.

CoPER created the Diversity Cadre, a group of seasoned teachers with extensive experience in teaching students from various backgrounds, to combat some of those issues. The group mentors and trains pre-service and first-year teachers in skills that could help them connect with minority students, including second language skills, cultural sensitivity and racial and ethnic conflict resolution. With the help of a U.S. Department of Education Teacher Qualification Enhancement Grant, the program, which started with seven teachers in 1998, will expand to include approximately 50 teachers statewide and will work with minority students in 16 school districts in Colorado. The Johnson Foundation and Microsoft will also provide additional funding to incorporate technology as an outreach tool for teachers in remote areas.

Currently CoPER is working on a system to integrate all education levels, from preschool through college and on into graduate school. The goal is to open dialogue between teachers at different grade levels, ensuring that students learn the skills necessary to succeed in secondary and postsecondary education. Parmalee says the program opens the lines of communication between public schools and colleges and universities, adding that the pressure put on elementary and secondary schools to meet test score requirements results in teachers not focusing on the skills students need in college. “Often the performance expectations kids have come to expect in school do not match their professors’ expectations,” she says. 

Dr. Eugene P. Sheehan, dean of UNC’s College of Education and Behavior Sciences, says they are training future teachers to serve as role models so that minority students will want to go to college.
“We place a lot of emphasis on teachers working with diverse populations,” he says. This includes diversity in curriculum, teaching special needs children, leadership skills and field experience in schools with heavy minority populations. Colorado requires teacher candidates meet eight performance-based standards in order to receive their certification. UNC added a ninth standard: teacher candidates must demonstrate the ability to teach diverse students. “This includes encouraging participation from all students, choosing reading materials that all kids might enjoy and have the opportunity to read and how teachers respond to issues of race and gender,” Sheehan says.
UNC faculty also teach introductory-level college courses at local high schools in Greeley.

“This brings college to kids who might not otherwise go,” Sheehan says. “They can talk to a professor in an environment they are comfortable in, take a course and kick the tires of college to see if it is something they might be interested in.

“We also recruit in neighborhoods. We sit down with kids and talk to their parents in their living room and tell them their child has college potential. We work one-on-one with families to help them start thinking about college, and locate financial resources if they need them,” Sheehan says.

Stephanie Torrez, director of UNC’s Center for Human Enrichment, says one-third of all incoming students at UNC each year are first-generation college students; many are Hispanic. In efforts to improve retention rates, CHE places participating students in a learning community with peers and provides in-class tutoring, academic advising and technical support. Torrez should know what works, because she was once a student participant in the program.

But Hispanic children need more than financial and academic support to succeed in college, some say. Positive emotional support must also come from society and teachers and administrators at the higher education institution itself.

Sheehan, who also teaches a psychology of prejudice class, says stereotypes play into Hispanic students’ decisions about whether to attend college.

“If there is an expectation that a culture will under or over perform, then often times, kids will subconsciously meet those expectations that have been set for them,” Sheehan says. “We need to improve the perception that a university is not a welcoming place for Hispanics. We also have to examine if we truly offer a welcoming environment, and if not, remedy that.”

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