The front gates are seen being worked on on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021, at Dominican University on Division Street in River Forest, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

Dominican University is partnering with more than a dozen colleges and universities in Illinois to help create guidelines for a new pilot program geared toward recruiting and retaining more teachers of color. Launched by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), the pilot aims to tackle issues of diversity among school staff and address the barriers candidates of color face while pursuing careers in education.

In an ISBE news release, pilot participants are asked to team up and draft their plans, which will be reviewed by members of the state’s Diverse and Learner Ready Teacher Network. Plans are expected to be finalized by May 31, 2022, and participants will then reconvene to analyze their strategies and name the approaches that worked. The purpose of the pilot is to “establish best practices” before ISBE requires all 54 educator preparation programs to develop plans, the release also stated. 

“There’s a disparity that we’re trying to address so that we can increase the diversity in our teachers,” said Josephine Sarvis, an education professor at DU and chairwoman of the university’s School of Education.

According to the 2021 Illinois School Report Card, 82% of public school teachers are white. About 8% of the state’s teachers identified as Hispanic, while 6% identified as Black and close to 2% as Asian. The report also pointed out that almost 76% of school administrators are white.

“For us at Dominican University, in our School of Education, the integral part of our mission is to really help prepare teachers. We value diversity, equity and inclusion and acknowledge differences between people as a valued asset,”

josephine sarvis, education professor at DU

To put those statistics more into perspective, the report card showed that roughly 47% of Illinois students who attend public schools identify as white. Twenty-seven percent of students are Hispanic followed by Black students (17%) and Asian students (5%).

Representation matters in the classrooms, Sarvis said, citing research from the Learning Policy Institute, an education nonprofit headquartered in California and Washington, D.C.

That group reported that teachers of color “boost the academic performance of students of color, including improved reading and math test scores, improved graduation rates, and increases in aspirations to attend college.” Many teachers of color often leave the profession because they feel alone but having more teachers of color “may mitigate those feelings of isolation,  frustration or fatigue,” the report stated.

Sarvis said teachers should be able to connect and engage with their students, but that can be tough for some.

Across the U.S., including Illinois, many teachers are white and can only speak English, “and they’re often culturally different from the students they teach,” Sarvis said. “Sometimes, these teachers hold ethnocentric beliefs that may potentially influence the educational experiences of their diverse students, which is why we need more teachers of color.”   

Sarvis said DU’s education program has teamed up with schools in neighboring communities such as Oak Park, River Forest, Elmwood Park, Bellwood, Maywood, Proviso Township and Chicago, all of which have varying racial and socioeconomic demographics.

“For us at Dominican University, in our School of Education, the integral part of our mission is to really help prepare teachers. We value diversity, equity and inclusion and acknowledge differences between people as a valued asset,” she said.

Before diving into ISBE’s pilot program, Sarvis opened up about DU’s School of Education and its commitment to breaking down academic barriers for students, including those of color, who are low-income and/or the first in their families to attend college.

Through grant funding, Sarvis said the School of Education has expanded to offer sets of resources, including offering skill-building workshops for state-required exams for soon-to-be teachers; creating professional development opportunities for teacher programs; providing ESL (English as a second language) or bilingual courses; or working closely with students to outline the steps of becoming an educator.

“We have created digital advising materials for our students, which makes understanding the pathway to becoming a teacher very clear and takes out some of the jargon,” she said.

“We debunked all of that, and we made these really accessible types of advising and support materials to help our students,” Sarvis added. 

Sarvis said navigating educator licenses and finding mentorship beyond school are among the top challenges that teachers of color experience, especially those who are just starting out in their careers.

“The preparation of teachers doesn’t end when they graduate. It continues. Those first few years in the field are the most important,” Sarvis said, adding that the School of Education provides mentorship programs for students building their careers in education.

As Sarvis reflected on her work at DU and the work to be done for ISBE’s pilot program, she thought about all the possibilities that will shape the next generation of teachers and education.

“I think this is the most important work right now that we can do in preparing future teachers. So I’m really excited about it,” Sarvis said. “I’m excited to learn from all of our fellow colleagues at Illinois universities and colleges and share ideas in a collaborative way.”

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