Aspiring Educators

Sharif El-Mekki, founder of the Center for Black Educator Development, speaks during a news conference announcing the School District of Philadelphia’s new pilot program aimed at cultivating minority teaching careers. — Courtesy of Commonwealth Media Services

One title Pennsylvania holds that leaders would like to shed is the commonwealth’s recognition as the state with the lowest percentage of teachers of color.

Longtime educator Sharif El-Mekki believes that a first-of-its kind teacher recruitment initiative aimed at addressing the deficit is a step in the right direction.

“A lot of states look at just one part of the pipeline. They may look at retention, or this is how we build,” El Mekki said. “But in reality those are just potholes. This is a comprehensive plan that addresses a pathway. You can either fill potholes, or you can build the road. This is building the road.”

The program — Aspire to Educate — will provide free or reduced tuition, and mentoring and training to students of color who plan to attend one of seven participating colleges or universities and become educators after they graduate.

“Aspire to Educate will help Pennsylvania attract, recruit, train and retain a new generation of teachers and education leaders,” state state Department of Education Secretary Pedro A. Rivera in a news release. “It will not only help the commonwealth address the shortage of educators and the lack of diversity in the teacher pipeline but will also provide a career pathway for students in the teaching profession.”

Since 2014, ethnic and racial minorities make up more than half the student population in the U.S. public schools, yet about 80% of teachers are white and 77% of them are female. A mere 2% of teachers across the U.S. are Black men.

The demographics are more skewed in Pennsylvania, where 96% of teachers are white. The majority of African-American teachers in the state work in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

“Research confirms that there are many benefits for students of color having teachers of color, including a decrease in disciplinary referrals and punitive discipline, improved grads and access to rigorous courses,” said El-Mekki, founder and CEO of The Center for Black Educator Development.

“Also, the role of mentorship and coaching in teacher recruitment and retention is paramount. I’m excited that the Department of Education is leading this effort through this robust program.”

El-Mekki, who served as principal at Mastery Charter for 11 years, says 16 students from the school are currently earning credits through Arcadia University.

The Aspire to Educate program is a partnership between the state Department of Education; the School District of Philadelphia; local education organizations such as the Philadelphia Youth Network and The Center for Black Educator Development; Community College of Philadelphia; Cabrini University; and Arcadia, Cheyney, Drexel, Temple and West Chester universities.

Beginning in January, the School District of Philadelphia will select a cohort of 20 high school junior and seniors who will work with the colleges and universities to develop specific plans for each student to enroll at one of the schools. Once enrolled, students will receive full or partial financial assistance for their undergraduate education from the partnering institution. Students will also earn college credits while they are in high school.

Officials plan to expand the program in other high-need areas of the state in the future.

Officials also plan to expand the program to attract adults of color who have some college credits or a college degree who are interested in exploring a career in teaching.

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