Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the University of Northern Iowa was the recipient of the grant.
WATERLOO — A grant-funded program is expected to help Waterloo Community Schools increase the number of minority teachers in its classrooms.
The University of Northern Iowa was recently awarded a $300,000 two-year grant by the R.J. McElroy Trust to implement the Teach Waterloo Project in collaboration with the district. Its purpose is to address the disparity between minority teachers and students across Waterloo Schools.
“Right now, we’re serving 52 percent minority students, and our teaching staff is less than 8 percent minority,” said Bev Smith, associate superintendent for human resources and equity. “There’s research that supports the value and power of providing a diverse staff for all students.”
Targeting district staff, the program helps fund an education degree for participants in collaboration with UNI.
“We will be supporting 18 individuals who are behavior interventionists or para(educator)s for them to become teachers,” Smith told the Board of Education this week. Funding would pay for administrative oversight of participants as well as partially cover tuition and provide other support.
The program will begin in the fall and be open to minority staff in those positions with at least an associate’s degree. They would continue working at district schools and take night classes over two years to earn an education degree.
“They will be trained as elementary teachers,” said Smith, and would have the option of earning endorsements in special education or other areas at their own cost after completing the program.
“Diverse students who have diverse teachers tend to fare better and do better in school,” said UNI College of Education Dean Gaëtane Jean-Marie. In addition, she noted that the approach of working with existing staff is expected to improve retention once they become teachers.
The effort is part of “the collective vision to continue to provide a pipeline of teachers to the state of Iowa,” added Jean-Marie. A group of administrators from the university and the district developed the idea.
“We had over 50 minorities apply and express interest, and we can only do 18 at a time,” said Smith. “We’re continuing to look for additional funds ... so we can do an ongoing process.
“We have individuals that are very prepared and we’re going to make sure that first 18 that become a part of that cohort are going to be successful,” she added. “That’s critical to us. I’m doing individual interviews with each of the applicants to make sure this is the time in their life to move forward and get that done.”
Board member Rhonda McRina praised the idea of focusing on this group of district staff in the program. These are “people who understand our community, who understand these kids” and want to be in Waterloo.
“It really shows how much we value our paras and behavior intervention specialists,” she added. “These are not easy jobs, and so incentivizing this group to stay in our district is really awesome.”