There's been a big demographic shift in Skagit Valley school districts in the past decade. For example, these days about 43 percent of students in the Burlington-Edison School District are Latino, up from 27 percent a decade ago.
But while the student population has changed, the teaching staff largely has not.
Almost nine out of 10 teachers in the district are white. It’s not just a Skagit County phenomenon. Statewide, there’s a disconnect between the demographics of school kids and the people who teach them, as The Seattle Times highlighted in a recent series.
To Michael Sampson, a teacher at Burlington-Edison High School, one way to develop a cadre of teachers who reflect the student population is to plant the seed early and get his high schoolers thinking about a possible career in education.
GROWING THEIR OWN
His Recruiting Washington Teachers class is now in its 12th year and is one of the oldest grow-your-own-teacher programs in the state.
On a recent afternoon, he began his class with a unity clap, in which he and his students started clapping slowly and got faster and faster in unison. Then they recited a Mayan proverb popularized by the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez called In Lak’Ech.
Tú eres mi otro yo.
You are my other me.
Si te hago daño a ti,
If I do harm to you,
Me hago daño a mi mismo.
I do harm to myself.
Si te amo y respeto,
If I love and respect you,
Me amo y respeto yo.
I love and respect myself.
Most of the students in his class are Latino. But they haven't really had teachers who share their background.
Alejandra Ramirez Santa Cruz, 17, is a senior at Burlington-Edison. She said she's only had one Latina teacher: Ms. Ramirez. Sharing the same last name was just one way that Alejandra said she felt close to her.
“I always call her my tía (aunt) even though she’s not, but I’m always like, “Oh, that’s my tía,’” she said. “But it would be really nice to have more Latino teachers around.”
IMPACTS OF DIVERSE TEACHERS
Research has shown better outcomes for students of color when they have teachers who share their race or ethnic background. One recent study found that low-income black students who have at least one black teacher in elementary school are far more likely to graduate from high school.
Sampson’s class goes beyond training possible future teachers – it’s a leadership class aimed at inspiring bilingual students to learn about and celebrate their heritage, while encouraging them to apply to and attend college.
Jenny Ramirez, 16, said she wants to become a politician. She said she's learned a lot in this course about race and class, giving her insight into the negative messages Latino kids internalize because of the lack of diversity in the teaching staff.
“I feel like over time you just kind of come to expect a white person is going to be in charge of the classroom,” she said. “A white person is going to be in charge of the school and they’re going to be in charge of everything that goes beyond that.”
But this class aims to undo that negative messaging. Sampson, who is white, said he often has to acknowledge the irony that a class aimed at developing more Latino teachers was started by a white man.
“I get that question all the time and I think it’s a really valid question,” he said. “I think the way that we approach teaching about culture really has to do with – it’s everybody, everybody has it. So I get to talk about what my white privilege background is, what that means to me, and that approach really helps alleviate those kinds of questions.”
'THAT TYPE OF ROLE MODEL'
For part of the year, students in Sampson's class spend time as teaching assistants with kids in younger grades. It serves a dual purpose: getting older kids excited about teaching and giving younger ones somebody to look up to.
That’s something Alejandra is looking forward to. She’s the kind of girl who liked to play school, even when she wasn’t at school. She would make up fake lessons for her cousins. Her parents are from Mexico and didn't go to college, but she wants to and would like to become a Spanish teacher.
“I want to be that type of role model, kind of like helping kids embracing themselves,” she said. “I want kids to not be afraid to be who they are – to always show who they are. It’s okay to be different.”
There are classes like this in other parts of the state, including Tacoma and Renton. This school year, additional districts got state funding to create programs aimed at developing bilingual educators. Many partner with colleges.
Burlington-Edison is among a group of partners for a program called Maestros Para el Pueblo, which is aimed at training Latino teachers. Other partners include Mount Vernon High School, Skagit Valley College and Western Washington University.
Tom Keegan, president of Skagit Valley College, said the Maestros program is one important piece of a broader effort at the community college to serve an increasingly diverse population. Latino students make up 17 percent of the student population.
“We believe when we hold a mirror up to our community, we should see those faces in our student body,” he said.
MAKING SENSE OF HIGHER ED
Daisy Padilla is the navigator for the Maestros program at Skagit Valley College. Her job entails helping about 100 students in the program – most of whom are the first in their families to attend college – make sense of the higher education system.
“My role is that we not only build community but we become a family,” Padilla said.
She’s intentionally turned her office into something of a refuge for students. She's got baskets of granola bars and other snacks. Every now and then, students drop in to grab something.
One thing that's always in the back of Padilla's mind: she wants to be the person that she never had when she went to college. Her parents didn't go to college and neither did her older siblings.
“I didn’t know what applying to financial aid was, what a FAFSA was, advising, degrees, certificates, majors – all that higher education lingo, I had no idea what it meant,” she said.
CHALLENGES FOR STUDENTS
With her background as the child of farmworkers, Padilla can understand the pressures the students in the Maestros program face. Some pick berries in the summer and squeeze in classes at the same time. Many help provide for younger siblings or help their parents pay rent.
Cristal Aguilar is 24 years old and in her final quarter at Skagit Valley College. She said she gives her paychecks to her mom to help with rent and other bills. It's taken her longer than expected to get her associate degree because she's been working full time at a preschool.
“Honestly, it has taken a toll on my self-esteem in those four years going from school to work, school to work, school to work,” Aguilar said.
But it's starting to pay off – she recently got hired as a bilingual paraeducator in the Sedro-Woolley School District.
Still, Padilla said there are other challenges facing the students in the Maestros program. Some have struggled to pass the standardized test they must take to get into the teacher training program at Western. Some are undocumented and are in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The Trump administration has tried to end it, and Padilla said that's created a lot of uncertainty for students with DACA.
“Is DACA going to stay? Should I even continue going to school? Should I just work since I need to start saving if DACA goes away since I’m not going to be able to work anymore?” Padilla said.
Then, she said, there are students who are undocumented but do not meet the eligibility for DACA. They don't know if they'll be able to get teaching jobs when they finish because they lack work authorization.
But Padilla said she's hopeful the Maestros program will help populate the public schools with more Latino teachers. When students of color see role models in positions of power, they'll imagine more for themselves, too.
“Oh, I can be a teacher, and I can be a great teacher. I can be a doctor,” she said. “We have something that’s planted within us that says, 'Oh, that person looks like me, so I can do it, too.’”
And Padilla said she's hopeful the students who speak Spanish at home will realize just how much of an asset it is in an increasingly diverse state.