Continued Momentum: Teaching as Mentoring: How Teachers Engage in the Mentoring of Students

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Another colleague confesses her surprise at how often teachers of color have reported experiencing racial bias in their own interactions in the building. Teachers describe these minute sessions as candid and, more often than not, uncomfortable. But they say the discussions are helping them to become better educators within a system in which predominantly white staff teach in schools with significant numbers of black and Latino students.

The move toward cultural proficiency, also known as culturally relevant education or culturally responsive teaching, has been gaining momentum in urban school districts throughout the country.

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The goal is to better serve low-income students of color by acknowledging and addressing inequities built into aspects of curriculum design, classroom discipline and even student-teacher relationships. Many educators cite these as contributing factors in the long-standing academic achievement gap between low-income students of color and their more affluent white peers. The first step, cultural proficiency proponents say, is for white teachers simply to acknowledge the role that racial and cultural bias plays inside the building and classrooms.

The centerpiece of the effort, as it has been outlined by the department to date, is a mandatory daylong implicit bias training for every teacher and administrator. Mitigating the effects of implicit bias on student behavior and performance requires teachers working closely with their peers, and school leaders making those efforts a priority. The effort must be ongoing. Attendance is nearly 95 percent, the number of students meeting or exceeding academic standards in English is on par with statewide levels and the school reported zero suspensions in These successes are happening largely due, teachers say, to the persistent efforts of school principal Manuel Fernandez, who draws from his own experiences as a student of color in all-white schools.

School principal Manuel J. Fernandez has made cultural proficiency work a priority at Cambridge Street Upper School. In a career that spanned both community organizing and stints in the corporate world before becoming a school administrator, Fernandez always looked to make racial and social equity a priority. And when the chance presented itself to lead Cambridge Street in , he made his intentions clear. Teachers were reading books on race and education, listening to guest speakers and meeting regularly in sessions led by Fernandez. While some teachers embraced the approach, results at the school were limited, Fernandez says.

He came to realize that his role in facilitating those meetings, not just as the principal but as a black man addressing a largely white staff about a topic as fraught as race, was inhibiting the type of honest and fruitful discussion necessary for meaningful change.

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The solution, he realized, was for teachers to be guided by their peers. That has made the discussions more productive, teachers say, and often more difficult. Voices crack, faces flush with emotion and tears are not uncommon. While these conversations can be awkward, teachers say they play an essential role in helping them become better at their jobs. It feels useful.

You feel the practicality of it. The discussions have prompted teachers to change the way they plan classes and how they interact with students. Autism specialist Rebecca Flanagan says she makes sure that the images and photographs she uses as teaching aids reflect the diversity of her students.

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School librarian Norah Connolly recalls learning from a group of students about their interest in Japanese manga. Recognizing the dearth of literature written from a nonwhite perspective, Connolly was quick to add dozens of titles to the library. She recalls a much different experience at a previous middle school she attended that was nearly all white. I would see him walk into school and his facial expression would change.

Teachers recall recent incidents when their comments or actions made students feel they were being singled out, often because of race. But now when these incidents occur, teachers say they feel better equipped to respond. Related: Access does not equal equity. Viewing education through a racial and cultural lens is not new.

Carter G. Afrocentric schools that began to form in the decades that followed were built on the idea that black children are best served by black educators. Yet, urban districts serving primarily black and Latino children still face a lack of diversity in their teacher force. A growing number of schools are looking for ways to build stronger student-teacher relationships, a prerequisite, they assert, to narrowing achievement gaps in academic performance. She read an article about the Brooklyn high school and learned that students there spend six years instead of the traditional four but they graduate with an associate degree along with their high school diploma — all for free.

That caught her eye.

Teacher-led reforms have a big advantage — Teachers -

Like many of her peers, she will manage to finish all her coursework earlier than the six-year timeline the school lays out. Looking ahead to enrolling in a four-year college, she said the practice of balancing work, college and high school all at the same time has fortified her against the stress freshmen typically face.

It opened in and has spawned a movement. In each place, the P-TECH model brings together a school district, a community college and local industry. More than businesses partner with various schools around the world, helping teachers develop work-relevant curricula, mentoring students, offering paid internships and standing ready to hire P-TECH grads. Ryan Crozier said momentum has been building steadily for P-TECH and models like it that bring together businesses and schools to better prepare students.

Over the last few years, seven states have lined up to expand the model beyond New York. North Carolina and Minnesota are discussing similar plans. Related: A district that pays students for their work. The act was first passed in , to support career preparation programs. With federal funding, it encourages partnerships across K, higher ed and business sectors.

Ryan Crozier said some states already allow for that, while others have to pass new legislation — and usually redirect some funding. As early as the summer after ninth grade, students can begin taking college courses. And they continue with a mix of classes until they graduate. The P-TECH network boasts an on-time community college graduation rate at four times the national average.

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Attendance is also strong, Ryan Crozier said, which indicates students are engaged. She said the internship taught her how to be adaptable and introduced her to a corporate work environment. It also gave her important networking opportunities — an IBM vice president put her in touch with people at all the colleges she wants to apply to. P-TECH schools are in communities with high concentrations of poverty, serving students that are historically underrepresented in colleges.

Helping students in these communities find mentors and make connections with industry leaders expands their personal networks, opening doors that otherwise would have remained closed. Shanaes is on track to get her high school diploma at the end of this academic year along with an associate degree in computer system technologies.

This story about career-focused high schools was produced by The Hechinger Report , a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Join us today. She launched her journalism career with two award-winning pieces co-produced during a three-month stint at the Kitsap Sun… See Archive.

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