UNL launches new program to hire and retain teachers of color

Feb. 28, 2024, 3 p.m. ·

Project Raices
The scholarship offered through Project Raíces will cover tuition, books, housing, a laptop and a living stipend for two and a half years, with the possibility of extending through the students' entire college career, according to Amanda Morales, lead of the program. (Photo by Tra Nguyen/Unsplash)

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The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has launched a new program in partnership with Kansas State University. Re-envisioning Action and Innovation through Community Collaborations for Equity across Systems, or Project RAÍCES, aims to attract and retain teachers from diverse backgrounds.

It will offer early teacher development training, mentorships and sixteen scholarships to students from the Youth Participatory Action Research Programs—Nebraska teacher preparation programs—from Lincoln High School, Columbus High School, Schuyler High School, South Sioux City High School and Wakefield High School. All of these schools have a particularly diverse demographic, according to the program leaders.

Amanda Morales, an associate professor in the College of Education and Human Sciences, is leading the program. She said she was inspired and mentored by the Kansas State University Center for Intercultural and Multilingual Advocacy Executive Director Socorro Herrera, who established the model for Project RAÍCES in the neighboring state.

“This project, I feel really passionate about it, because it's looking at the whole picture. It's looking at how we inspire them at the high school and middle school level, how we equip them with the tools to understand their own voice and agency at the high school level, support them as they come in to higher [education] or college. effectively prepare them engage them as critical inquiries as folders of knowledge and creators of knowledge,” Morales said. “And really center their identity, their expertise, their language, their culture in the way that we prepare them to be future teachers of the diverse students in our classrooms.”

Raíces, the Spanish word for roots, highlights multiple metaphors the program intends to address: understanding the participants’ cultural backgrounds are a part of what they can rely on to be successful teachers and emphasizing how impactful it is for teachers to return to their 'roots' i.e. their hometowns.

"The metaphor counts both personal roots, heritage roots and who we're working with--their backgrounds matters--but it also is intended as a way of thinking about what a vibrant school system can look like," co-lead Ted Hamann said. Hamann, a professor within the College of Education and Human Sciences, is also co-leading with colleague and Associate Professor Lauren Gatti.

Project RAÍCES will last three years with a potential of an additional two years. Hamann said this will help address a statewide problem.

“We have a teaching shortage. And if we keep succeeding at recruiting new white teachers, and the white population is getting smaller, our old method will keep delivering fewer and fewer new teachers, just because the pool that we're drawing from that we've historically done well with, is getting smaller,” Hamann said. Hamann also credits this program method to former Nebraska Commissioner of Education Matt Blomstedt, who helped with previous outlines of the program.

"Oftentimes, we focus on recruiting and getting students into teaching, but we put them through programs that are essentially designed for the majority, right? They're designed for the majority students. And so the identities of Black and brown pre-service teachers are often not well-represented or understood in our teacher ed programs," Morales added.

The program will begin this summer with an 11-day immersive "bridge" experience to be exposed to college life before the fall semester. The project is funded through a $3.9 million grant from the Department of Education and a required 25% match from UNL and Kansas State. UNL's portion makes up more than $2.1 million.

Morales said this program will actually benefit students and teachers of all races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

"We know that having students of color or teachers of color in the classrooms has profound positive impacts, not just on students of color, but all students, because white students are able to see powerful, smart, informed experts who are passionate and curious and engaging and kind and supportive, being represented by someone who comes from a different culture than them and that's also really powerful. So it's just a win-win all the way around," she said.