Walking around Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville growing up, Daniel Jackson didn’t see many adults who looked like him.
“There were not many Black male teachers in my school when I was a student,” Jackson recalls. “And we already know that schools have many more women than men. Then there’s more white men than Black men in the school buildings.”
Jackson, who grew up in Englewood and Bronzeville, set out to help his community by filling a void. So he went to Illinois State University, earned a teaching degree and came right back to Chicago Public Schools for a year as a student teacher. He then landed his dream job as a second grade teacher at a CPS school, Dixon Elementary, in Chatham.
Looking to confront a dire shortage of teachers of color that’s years in the making, CPS officials are now unveiling their latest effort that would put more students on the same path Jackson took.
The district is launching an initiative called “Teach Chicago Tomorrow” to create a pipeline of homegrown educators. Interested CPS students will go to City Colleges for general education coursework and an associate degree, then Illinois State University for a bachelor’s degree. ISU classes will be held in Chicago at the university’s National Center for Urban Education in Garfield Park.
After a year-long student teaching gig, grads will get priority access to jobs at CPS.
“The goal is to build a network of new teachers who look like Chicago kids, come from Chicago communities, are invested in Chicago’s neighborhoods, because ultimately they’re CPS graduates,” said Matt Lyons, CPS’ chief talent officer.
Only about 11% of the district’s 350,000 students are white, but half of its 22,000-strong teaching force is white.
Meanwhile, about 10% of CPS’ 100,000 high schoolers indicate on career surveys that teaching is a career they’re interested in, Lyons said. Yet only about 140 CPS grads are among the 1,200 to 1,600 teachers hired by the district each year. The goal is to get closer to 500 homegrown teachers every year.
“We’re positive we’re going to reach far more students than are navigating the system on their own right now,” Lyons said. “There’s a set of students already interested in teaching, and not as many as could be are finding their way through the process.”
Despite the interest, studies have shown nearly half as many Black and Latino students are graduating Illinois colleges with education degrees as a decade ago.
Jackson said several barriers have created that issue: College is too expensive, and mentorship opportunities aren’t readily available. Teachers also don’t make enough money for a lot of folks to be willing to take on the responsibilities society asks them to shoulder, he said.
To start, CPS’ goal is to put together a cohort of 100 students for the 2021-2022 academic year. Lyons said the district is mindful not to cannibalize from other initiatives that feed the same target while it recruits students for this program. Though it’ll take four years for the first cohort to make a dent in the teaching shortage, Lyons said the district hopes this initiative can grow into a piece of the long-term solution.
The program doesn’t grant any direct financial support for students; it includes career, academic and financial advising and a summer bridge program before freshman year of college. Most students who would be interested, however, would likely be eligible for federal student aid, Lyons said.
This isn’t CPS’ first effort to address this problem, and it likely won’t be the last. In December, the school board called a community meeting to listen to the concerns and suggestions of stakeholders who said there weren’t enough teachers of color in the district, and some remained skeptical anything would change.
Jackson said teachers who come from the communities they serve are better able to connect with their students because their familiar experiences growing up form bonds that strengthen kids’ education, he said.
“I encounter my students and their families in the store or the bank or just traveling across the community because I’m a person who wants to connect with my community,” Jackson said. “They see me shopping for groceries for class because sometimes I go get them food and snacks. And they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, he’s a real person.’ And they get to see me in the community.
“Being raised on the South Side, teaching on the South Side, there’s a strong connection and bond that I can relate to them on outside of the academic setting.”