Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) is part of a new partnership to help our region’s students find their way back to the classroom as a career. In the face of a critical teacher shortage, the McKnight Foundation awarded a $75,000 planning grant to create the “Southwest Teacher Preparation Partnership,” which involves Worthington Public School District, Minnesota West Community and Technical College, Southwest Minnesota State University and SWIF. These organizations are laying the groundwork for a teacher career pathway that will increase the diverse pool of quality teacher candidates in the region.
The largest barrier to hiring qualified teachers is the number of applicants for openings, according to a 2016 survey of school officials conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education. A competitive job market and low salaries for teachers are hurting the field.
This partnership is also working to understand what it takes to support students who want to teach, especially students of color who aren’t often seeing teachers who look like them in their classrooms.
According to the Worthington Public School District, more than 68 percent of its high school students are from one of over 40 cultures in the area. And more than 78 percent of elementary students in the district are students of color. Only about 7 percent of their teachers are people of color.
SWIF granted $15,000 for the first steps on the pathway for prospective teachers. This funding helped convene thought leaders and launch a new club at WHS called Future Teachers of America (FTA) to support and encourage students interested in a career in education.
Perla Banegas is helping advise the new FTA club. She is a WHS graduate and teaches English language learners at the school. After working for five years as a paraprofessional, Perla went back to school and obtained her teaching degree. It was a major financial challenge, juggling her studies and a job, but she felt supported by her coworkers and administrators at WHS. She stayed in Worthington because her family is here, because she has strong connections with her former teachers who are now colleagues and because there’s a lot of room to make a difference in a smaller, rural area.
“At the end of the day, teaching is really about having a kind heart and the difference that you make in your students’ lives. Sometimes we don’t see that difference on a day-to-day basis, sometimes it’s not until graduation or until other milestones our students reach,” said Perla, who has mostly ninth and 10th grade students.
Perla is leading the FTA club with fellow teacher Patrick Mahoney. About 40 students are participating. Their meetings twice a month will include spending time observing in classrooms, volunteering and networking, as well as instruction from Perla and Patrick.
Jessica Ventura is a senior at WHS and part of FTA. She loves math and wants to become a teacher because of the positive experiences she’s had in school. Jessica hopes to attend Minnesota West Community and Technical College this fall to start her journey to becoming an educator.
“I want to help students to grow and develop. I would love to teach everything—kindergarten, first grade, elementary, or maybe ESL because I struggled in that category, and I want to help other students,” Jessica Ventura.
Watching Perla teach has helped Jessica imagine herself as a teacher and given Jessica ideas about the way she wants to show up for students in her future classroom.
“Part of what the club offers is that exposure students need in connection with the profession. This is not just a fantasy, but a dream they can achieve by watching others, by being involved, by participating,” Perla said. “Our goal is to encourage students to build relationships around the district, so they are able to ask questions and hopefully have a better understanding of what teaching involves.”
In our last fiscal year, SWIF awarded $505,000 in grants to projects like this for Grow Our Own, an effort to support all southwest Minnesota kids and families. Our partner funds, including local community foundations, also fund this work with local grants.