Franklin Middle School English teacher Jesse Ramirez entered his fifth year as an educator in the Janesville School District—one of several minority teachers in the district who attended college and returned to teach in Janesville as part of a local scholarship program.
Ramirez, now 29, got his first teaching job at Franklin, where he remains today.
In the last five years, he remembers one student who inspired him greatly: A Spanish-speaking boy who Ramirez said learned English fearlessly, exuding confidence despite the fact he sometimes had trouble expressing himself in his new language.
Ramirez, who is Latino, attended UW-Rock County and UW-Whitewater and earned a teaching degree with the help of the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship, a nonprofit award administered through the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin.
He was among the first to earn the scholarship, a $5,000 annual stipend given to select minority students in the Janesville School District who agree to teach in Janesville after graduation. In the decade the program has run, eight people who received the scholarship have gone on to teach in Janesville; six of them continue to teach here.
The purpose of the program, the scholarship’s advisory board members say, is to bolster the number of educators of color in the school district. The ultimate goal, advisory board President Tammy Huth said, is to have a percentage of minority teachers that matches the percentage of the minority student population.
There’s a long way to go before that might happen. The district has six teachers who have come to the district through the scholarship program, and only about 2% of teachers in the district are considered part of an ethnic or cultural minority.
The district’s overall student body of just under 10,000 students was 28% minority last year, according to state Department of Public Instruction data. That proportion is up from about 12% in 2006, and that growth has come at a time when overall enrollment has declined.
Ramirez said he believes the effect of him being in a classroom, particularly teaching English and language arts to English language learners, has made a difference.
He referred to the English-learning student he said was unafraid despite his lack of command of the language. Ramirez said the boy’s fearlessness stemmed from a cultural shift in a classroom that had a Latino teacher.
“He (the student) felt welcome and secure and safe enough to be able to present his ideas, to be confident and know that his ideas were more important than whether he had perfect enunciation or an accent,” Ramirez said.
On Tuesday, Ramirez was a speaker at a benefit dinner to raise money for the scholarship he received on his way to his teaching career in his hometown.
Visiting the dinner and also speaking there was state Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor, who runs the Department of Public Instruction. Stanford Taylor, who was named to the post by Gov. Tony Evers in January, is the first black person in state history to hold that job.
Stanford Taylor, whose background in public education includes years in Madison’s public school system, said the state’s schools are in need of minority teachers who can better connect with students of different ethnicities and cultures.
Many smaller cities and towns throughout the state, including Janesville, have had difficulties—a “problem,” Stanford Taylor called it—attracting and retaining teachers and administrators of color, she said.
Stanford Taylor said the Madison school system for years had a difficult time hiring and retaining teachers of color. She said locally and regionally, there have been economic barriers to black students and other minority students attending college.
And while some school districts for a time focused on recruiting teachers of color from the South, Stanford Taylor said those teachers sometimes didn’t stay long, often because of the culture shock of moving to the predominantly white Midwest and also because of the colder weather.
Now, she said, districts are trying to generate diversity by growing their own minority teaching staff and identifying minority students who might want to teach someday.
“What I’m seeing right now is a resurgence of efforts. And it’s efforts on the part of many districts and universities, the number of entities that have their hand in the ‘grow-your-own’ programs that people are creating,” Stanford Taylor said.
“A number of districts are looking at maybe some of the educational assistance and (showing) others that they have in their school that they have the potential to become educators. (The districts) are seeing funding for those programs, so they’re removing some of those barriers for folks to become educators.”
In Janesville, seven students are now in various stages of earning a teaching degree through the Janesville Multicultural Teacher Scholarship.
If all those students graduate and are hired into the Janesville School District and if the district is able to retain the same number of minority teachers it has now, the proportion of minority teachers in the district would nearly double.
Stanford Taylor said recent research shows that having teachers whose culture or ethnicity more closely meshes with minority students can help address a gap in achievement—including higher dropout rates— between minority students and their white counterparts.
In Janesville, the dropout rate for high school students who are white was about 1.5% last year, according to DPI data. By comparison, the dropout rate last year for black students in the district was about 5.5%.
She said the research shows if a student has had an experience with an educator of color by third grade, “their likelihood of graduating increases 15% to 17%” and that if a student has had more than one such teacher by third grade, “it increases by something like 35%.”