Raising a family on his wages as a classroom aide, Jabari Browne didn't think he'd be able to afford to go back to school to get his teaching license. But with the help of a Grow Your Own program, he graduated with a master's degree from the University of St. Thomas this May. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Jabari Browne didn’t think he would be able to become a teacher.

Browne developed a passion for education early. His mom was a school paraprofessional in Orlando, Florida; as a teenager, Browne volunteered at her school and helped out at the Special Olympics.

So it was no surprise when he became an educational support professional at Minneapolis’ Sanford Middle School, helping kids who have special needs with academics, behavior, and basic tasks. He loved getting to know his special education students. “It makes it so much easier to teach because they want to learn from you and try their best when you have that relationship with them,” he said.

But by his mid-twenties, and a parent now himself, Browne felt becoming a teacher had slipped out of reach. He’d have to take at least a year off work to go back to school, pay tuition, and complete student teaching—essentially an unpaid full-time job—all while trying to raise a family. As a paraprofessional, he earned less than $30,000 a year; the costs of graduate school would likely exceed that amount. 

In 2017, he applied to Minneapolis Public Schools’ Grow Your Own program—a partnership with the University of St. Thomas to help special-education assistants gain their teaching licenses. 

Using grant dollars from the state, the program removes financial barriers to teacher licensure by providing tuition funds and student-teaching stipends. The result: a pathway for Minneapolis’ diverse classroom aides to become teachers, at almost no cost. Instead of having to quit their jobs and forego a year or more of income, aspiring teachers keep their district jobs while pursuing master’s degrees.

But that year, Browne didn’t get accepted. Too many people applied for a program with limited funding. And without that program, he didn’t see a path into teaching.

This year, Grow Your Own programs, which provide funding for districts to support diverse staff members pursuing teaching careers, received a significant boost at the Minnesota legislature, going from $1.5 million annually to $6.5 million. Altogether, the legislature allocated $30 million over two years to address Minnesota’s well-documented teacher-of-color shortage, tripling funding to develop and retain diverse educators.

The funded programs, scattered across a pair of all-encompassing education omnibus bills, include mentorship and retention programs for teachers of color, “Come Teach in Minnesota” hiring bonuses for out-of-state teachers, and scholarships for aspiring teachers of color. Grow Your Own programs received the greatest increase in funding. 

Paul Spies, legislative action team lead of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota, described the investments as “historic,” both in Minnesota and nationwide.

A third of Minnesota’s schoolchildren are now people of color. But only 5 percent of their teachers are. That gap has consequences. Studies show that when Black students have even one Black elementary teacher, their academic performance improves. In the presence of diverse teachers, students of color experience lower absenteeism and dropout rates and fewer suspensions. White students, too, report feeling cared for and academically challenged by teachers of color.

The Grow Your Own programs, which Minnesota first funded in 2016, have been heralded by Republicans and Democrats alike as a successful pathway to train talented, passionate, and much-needed teachers of color. The programs have also been popular with white teaching candidates. 

But with limited funding, only a handful of districts in the Twin Cities metro area have been able to access the grants. In the fiscal year ending in June 2020, 88 paraprofessionals were enrolled in Grow Your Own-programs statewide; 41 of those were people of color.

Advocates like Spies hope the funding infusion will help the programs scale up across the state, allowing more educators like Browne to become classroom teachers. Still, they worry that the legislature fell short of what advocates had sought. For instance, lawmakers agreed to establish a pilot program creating scholarships for aspiring teachers of color. But the legislature allocated $3 million over two years for the scholarships—far short of the $26 million that the Coalition suggested. The Grow Your Own programs received $2 million less annually than what the Coalition recommended.

If Minnesota teachers currently reflected their students’ diversity, Spies said, the state would have 23,000 teachers of color—not the 3,000 currently employed.

“Until we start increasing the percentage of teacher racial and ethnic diversity at a faster rate than students, we’re going to find ourselves in a deeper and deeper hole,” he said.

‘I never encountered a teacher of color before university’

When Julie Phillips took a job in 2018 as the recruitment and retention specialist for the Anoka–Hennepin School District, she quickly got to work identifying paraprofessionals of color who might qualify for the district’s Grow Your Own master’s programs. Census data show that nationally, paraprofessionals are more racially and linguistically diverse than teachers—and demographically much more similar to students.

She searched through staffing data to identify education assistants who were both people of color and already had a bachelor’s degree. Of the 1,200 district paraprofessionals, only 30 fit both criteria. Still, she recruited five of them to join the program in 2019. In three years, the district’s programs with the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas have developed (or “grown”) 20 teachers of color, she said. Anoka–Hennepin now sends more staff to the University of Minnesota’s program than any other district in the state.

“It’s small in the big picture, but every small movement creates impact,” Phillips said. “Consistent growth is the most important part.”

Credit: Graphic: Aala Abdullahi | Sahan Journal

Two of the future teachers enrolled in Anoka–Hennepin’s program with the University of Minnesota are Funmilayo Igboh, 57, and her 24-year-old daughter Bari Igboh.

Both mother and daughter had always liked working with kids. But instead of pursuing education, Funmilayo became a social worker and Bari studied public health.

Early on, Funmilayo dreamed of becoming a teacher. But after coming to the United States as a refugee from Nigeria, she decided to become a social worker in order to help others. Over the course of her career, she worked in before- and after-school programs. She even ran her own daycare. 

Then, she took a job as a paraprofessional at Evergreen Park Elementary School, in Brooklyn Center. When Funmilayo’s principal noticed how well she worked with kids, she asked her to consider becoming a teacher. Funmilayo responded that she couldn’t afford it. But her principal told her about the program that would guide her through the master’s program, allow her to keep her job, and cover most of the costs.

At the same time, as part of her public health major at the University of Minnesota–Duluth, Bari visited a second-grade class to give a presentation about dental and oral care.

“I saw how attentive they were when I was reading to them and the questions they were asking, and how little they were,” she said. “The hugs that they gave me and my partners at the end were just so fulfilling.” She left realizing she wanted to pursue a career working with kids, not in public health.

When Bari graduated, Funmilayo suggested she apply to join her as a paraprofessional at Evergreen Park. Then, Bari followed her mother into the district’s Grow Your Own teacher certification program. In Bari’s first year in the program, grant funding covered all her tuition, and she only had to pay for textbooks and technology, she said. 

“I thought it was amazing because I never encountered a teacher of color until university,” Bari said. At the time she graduated from Osseo Senior High School, 96 percent of teachers in her school were white. “I think that was also a reason why teaching might have taken a longer time to come to the forefront,” she said.

‘Tremendous opportunity’

With this year’s funding infusion, grants will become available to district and charter schools partnering with teacher preparation programs across Minnesota, rather than just the two metro-area universities that are currently approved by the state. And there won’t be limitations on grade level and subject area. Phillips hopes Grow Your Own programs will now be available to paraprofessionals who don’t yet have a bachelor’s degree, too. 

Tyler Livingston, supervisor of educator effectiveness programs for the Minnesota Department of Education, said the department is still clarifying that part of the legislation, but that the intention is to lift impediments to participation. “There’s just tremendous opportunity,” Livingston said.

Next year, according to the legislation passed this June,  at least 80 percent of tuition funding must go specifically to aspiring teachers of color.

Bari and Funmilayo hope these changes will result in more diversity. They were surprised to find themselves still minorities in a program that prioritized diverse teachers. Bari spotted just two classmates of color in her elementary education cohort. And Funmilayo, who’s training to teach English language learners, said she was the only Black member of her cohort. Adjusting to the new school technology was also more of a challenge for her as an older student. But she didn’t always feel comfortable asking her classmates for help.

“For me it was discouraging because I don’t have anyone to go to if I have a question or if I get stuck on something,” Funmilayo said.

Funmilayo started the two-year program a year earlier than Bari, but she got stuck in Nigeria without reliable internet access at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, delaying her coursework. Now, both mother and daughter will graduate in the spring of 2022.

The next generation

When Jabari Browne didn’t get into Minneapolis’s Grow Your Own program, back in 2017, he experienced self-doubt. Maybe he just wouldn’t be a good teacher, he thought.

But a few years later, he applied again. This time he got accepted into the 15-month program. That year, the program received a grant that fully covered the costs of his tuition—and even provided a stipend for student teaching. He graduated this past May. 

This fall, Browne will have his own classroom for the first time—back at Sanford Middle School, teaching kids with autism spectrum disorder. As a classroom teacher, he’ll earn double his paraprofessional wages. 

He grew up in poverty while his mom was a paraprofessional. Now, with a teacher’s salary, he won’t have to worry about providing for his own kids: 2-year-old London and 2-month-old Cameron.

Still, when he graduated from the University of St. Thomas in May, he noticed that only five or six other men of color received a teaching degree through the Grow Your Own program that day. He hopes the funding boost results in more opportunities for aspiring teachers of color.

The program changed his life, Browne said. Without it, he’d still be a classroom aide.

Clarification: This story has been updated to specify Paul Spies’s role in the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.