State legislature creates new scholarship for minority teachers

The state Department of Education will begin offering a new scholarship next month of up to $20,000 to high school graduates in priority school districts from a minority background who are enrolled in a four-year college.

Funding for the scholarship comes from a wide-reaching new bill passed by the state legislature in May that aims to improve mental and physical health of children in schools. In addition to creating a new council within the DOE to administer these scholarships, the bill grants additional funding for child care centers, school-based health centers and staffing grants for schools to hire more social workers, psychologists, counselors and nurses.

The scholarship is specifically available to minority students graduating from priority school districts, which the state designates annually based on student population and need. Meriden was among 16 priority districts in 2021-2022. The list also included Hartford, New Haven, Manchester, Waterbury and New Britain. 

The new scholarship comes at a time when the nation faces an ongoing teacher shortage exacerbated by COVID-19 in addition to a lack of diversity among teachers in Connecticut schools.

In Meriden, students of color represented 77% of the total enrollment in 2021-2022, while minority educators made up just 11.9% of the total staff, according to state data.

Hanover Elementary School Assistant Principal Orlando Valentin traces the disconnect in the number of teachers of color to the number of students of color to American history. Citing racist standards put in place to prevent minority teachers from receiving their certifications during the Great Migration and the problems of school segregation addressed by Brown v. Board of Education, Valentin thinks it’s important the issue receives legislative attention.

“If you don't see yourself represented in a profession growing up, then you don't think that's really an option for you,” he said. “A lot of people don't want to be a teacher because there's a lot of professions out there. It doesn't pay that well.”

Valentin suggests increases in funding and greater support for teachers leaving the workforce. However, despite the large divide between minority students and teachers, Valentin remains hopeful change will come. He pointed to statistics from the Meriden Public Schools showing a 19% increase in minority teachers since 2018.  

“It doesn't happen by accident. There's a lot of initiatives in place,” he said. “While we made some ground, we still have a lot of work to do.”

Karisma Maldonado, an educator in Wallingford Public Schools, is the first teacher in her family. Raised in Meriden from a Puerto Rican family, she is also the first person in her family to go to college. Like many minority students, she faced pressure from her friends and family to start working after graduating from high school instead of taking out student loans and going to college. Receiving little financial support from her family, she financed her education through a combination of scholarships and student loans.

“As a kid, I remember not seeing somebody like me,” she said. “Now, however, when I'm in Wallingford, it’s a little different for those kids that see me teaching.”

Despite the high cost, education is very important to Maldonado. She holds bachelors’ degrees in Elementary Education and Sociology from Saint Joseph college, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction at UConn, a sixth-year certificate as a Classroom Teacher Specialist from Southern Connecticut University and a certification in Teaching English Speakers of Other Language (TESOL). Recently transferred to a position as a District TESOL/Bilingual Teacher at three schools, she also teaches adult education ESL classes.

Her many qualifications notwithstanding, she is often mistaken for a paraprofessional staff member.

“As a minority woman, I feel like I'm walking around defending myself,” she said.  “I have to say ‘I actually have this degree, this degree, and this certification.’ I'm giving my resume in two minutes.”

Nevertheless, minority teachers have a lot to contribute to their communities. As a Latina bilingual teacher, Alicia Lorenzo notices that the cultural disconnect between students and teachers impacts student achievement and parent involvement in school activities. She believes partnering with parents is an important part of creating community and uses her Puerto Rican roots to connect with parents.  

“I get really good parent participation. Because I know the culture, I feel comfortable extending my hand to the parents,” she said. “And because they feel comfortable talking to me, then I can guide them to the resources available to them so it makes their transition a lot easier.”

Lorenzo is a career-switcher and worked as a paralegal in a law firm to afford to take night classes to get an ESL degree from UConn. After 18 years of experience as an educator, she now works at Hanover Elementary School in Meriden where she encourages her students to think about going to college, even though she says many of them don’t believe in themselves. She has also become a mentor and a cheerleader to her nieces and nephews that are pursuing careers in education.

“We don't come from a background where there are teachers,” she said. “Now I have nieces and nephews that are teachers. You can see that [they are teachers] because we guided them through that process.”

Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. To learn more about RFA go to Guzmán can be reached at Twitter: @lauguzm_n

"If you don't see yourself represented in a profession growing up, then you don't think that's really an option for you."

-Orlando Valentin

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