Mariah Valenzuela, a senior at Minneapolis' South High School, helps a third-grader sound out words at Folwell Community School. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Seventeen-year-old Mariah Valenzuela sat on a blue carpet decorated with letters from the alphabet, helping a third-grader practice his reading at Minneapolis’ Folwell Community School.

He knew the shorter words: I can dig. In the. 

But he stumbled over the longer word: sandbox.

“What I like to do is break it up into two words and put it together,” Mariah told the boy, covering the second half of the word with a manicured nail.

“Sond,” he sounded out.

“Sand,” Mariah said. 

She covered the other half of the compound word. 

“Box. Sandbox,” she said. “Do you feel confident in that?”

He nodded.

Mariah, a senior at South High School in Minneapolis, helps the third-grade classroom once a month. It’s part of a program designed to encourage diverse high school students to consider teaching. While 37 percent of Minnesota public school students are children of color, only 6 percent of their teachers are. 

Increasing that number has become a bipartisan priority at the Legislature in recent years. In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature tripled funding for programs to recruit and retain teachers of color. That funding included grants for “Grow-Your-Own” programs for high school students interested in becoming teachers. 

One of those grants funds the new program at South High. Advocates are hoping to further boost funding for teachers of color this year with Democrats in control of the Senate, House, and governor’s office.

But for the South High students in the educator pathway program, the classes represent more than an opportunity to explore a teaching career. Through the program, they can earn a college credit in a supportive, diverse classroom environment—which they say is rare at South. And through the program’s ethnic studies coursework, students can learn different cultural histories absent from many of their classes.

For some students, it’s a potent combination that helps them start to think of themselves as potential teachers for the first time. 

Mariah had never known much about her own Ojibwe history before taking an urban education course in the program. Learning her history through the class showed her how education can empower students. Now, she plans to become a teacher and specialize in curriculum development.

That’s the kind of spark advocates and lawmakers are hoping to create in high school students. And the program is showing promise. A recent state report shows that more students participate in the educator pathway programs in Minneapolis Public Schools than any other district or charter school in the state that offers similar programs. 

More than 90 percent of participants in Minneapolis’ programs are students of color, and after completing their education courses, most remain interested in teaching.

From student demands to a pilot program

The educator pathway program at South High grew out of student demands. In 2019, South students staged a walkout demanding more culturally responsive curriculum and more teachers of color. Two out of every three South High students were people of color during the 2018-2019 school year, according to state data. But only about 14 percent of their teachers were. 

After the walkout, teachers of color at South High formed an affinity group and reached out to a state coalition working to increase state funding for programs to recruit and retain teachers of color. Through this coalition, South High teachers learned about Grow-Your-Own programs, which are designed to help school staff obtain teaching licenses and encourage high school students to become teachers. Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis already had such a program for students.

Angelica Torralba-Olague, a teacher who now leads South’s program, recalls thinking that a program focused on high school students would be perfect for her school. In the fall of 2021, after South’s teachers of color convinced the district and school to allocate funding to the program, South High rolled out its intro to urban education class, taught by Torralba-Olague.

Josue Vega, a senior at South, helps Folwell third-graders with a classroom activity. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Hawi Emeru, a senior at South, had taken a class for English language learners (ELL) from Torralba-Olague. “That was the first time ever I felt like being in ELL is not bad,” Hawi said. 

Like Hawi, Torralba-Olague is an immigrant who learned English as a second language in Minneapolis Public Schools. Hawi came to the United States from Ethiopia in fifth grade; Torralba-Olague arrived in Minneapolis from the Philippines when she was five or six.

Hawi had felt separated from other students in previous English language classes, as though she were not smart enough to learn with them. But she felt respected in Torralba-Olague’s class. Torralba-Olague pushed her to work hard to overcome the hesitations and lack of confidence that sometimes come with learning a language. 

“She always treated us as a smart student,” Hawi said. “We were her students, not like a burden.”

She’d also gotten to know Torralba-Olague through their advocacy for the Increase Teachers of Color Act. Hawi testified virtually for the bill before a legislative committee in 2021. After the legislature approved funding, Torralba-Olague applied for and received a grant to run the Grow-Your-Own program at South.

Hawi hadn’t considered teaching as a career, but she signed up for the intro to urban education class when Torralba-Olague told her about it.

“If Ms. Olague’s teaching, I’m definitely going there,” she thought at the time.

Torralba-Olague used an ethnic studies framework to develop her class, including units on American Indian history, Black Lives Matter, and language justice for immigrants and refugees. 

“It’s truly creating an environment where students can be their authentic selves and can really thrive,” Torralba-Olague said. “And the way to go about that is to really talk about, and teach about, uncomfortable topics that happened in our history and our current practices, and how do we dismantle some of those practices?”

For each unit, students connect history with how students experience education today. They then start to create their own lesson plans with an ethnic studies framework. They also spend 30 hours volunteering in a local elementary school.

Folwell students told Sahan Journal they enjoy the visits from their high school helpers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

For Hawi, a recent immigrant, the class became a guide to living in America. 

“For students that were born here that are of color, either their parents or somebody will teach them about what’s going on in the U.S.,” she said. “For me, I didn’t have that. I’m actually the one that talks to my mom about these things—like what happened to George Floyd.”

The class helped her understand how to identify racism and sexism, including how she could perpetuate discrimination against other groups, she said.

Hawi never really intended to become a teacher. She’s more interested in pursuing a career in mental health. But now, she’s open to working in a school setting.

“I want to be able to teach what I’ve learned, to show students that they don’t have to feel like they’re outsiders or they don’t fit in,” she said.

‘I took the class and my whole perspective changed’

Before she headed to her third-grade classroom, Mariah straightened her hair in a Folwell conference room, using a television screen as a mirror.

She grew up self-conscious about her curly hair. Her hair texture comes from her Japanese dad’s family, but she grew up primarily around her Ojibwe mother’s relatives. Going to powwows as a kid, she felt out of place with her thick hair and lighter skin tone. Plus, she didn’t speak the Ojibwe language.

Mariah Valenzuela straightened her hair before heading to the third-grade classroom where she volunteers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“I was a junior when I first was able to comprehend and understand who I was: my history, my culture, my ancestors,” Mariah said.

That understanding came out of Torralba-Olague’s intro to urban education class. Mariah signed up for the class because she hoped to learn more about her own culture. She had previously been involved in the Native American Youth Council and taken Ojibwe classes at South. But Torralba-Olague’s class was the first time she was able to learn her own history in school.

“I grew up very distant from my culture, even though I grew up in a heavily Indigenous community,” Mariah said. “I felt like I didn’t really know our history, and then I always felt distant.” 

The intro to urban education class helped her connect with her own culture. She once called her grandmother while writing an essay and shared information she had learned. In turn, her grandmother shared family history; Mariah learned that her great-grandfather was a chief of her tribe. She now keeps a notebook full of family history, and shares what she learned with her younger siblings.

“It really fills a void,” Mariah said.

It was an epiphany about her identity, but also about the power of education. She wanted all students to have access to these kinds of classes. 

“I come from a really hard life,” Mariah said. “There’s just a lot of hardships that were in my way, and I had a lot of obstacles. But I feel like education was always my safe space.” 

Mariah Valenzuela shows third-graders how to draw a sloth during art class. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

She recalled staying later in after-school programs when she was younger to avoid going home earlier. At that time, she was often in and out of homeless shelters with her mom and siblings, and didn’t have a permanent place to call home. 

School represented a “more secure environment” with adults she saw every day and built relationships with, she said. Now, she wants to create that safe environment for others.

Until she took intro to urban education, Mariah had wanted to become a criminal defense lawyer. But, she realized, “I could never get to that point if I’m not satisfied in the classroom. I took the class and then my whole perspective changed.”

A college credit, and a chance for hands-on experience

In the Folwell school gym, 18-year-old Josue Vega kicked around a soccer ball with third-graders. The elementary students’ voices echoed through the room.

Josue took the intro to urban education class because he wanted the chance to earn a college credit. He hopes to study business, not education, in college. Still, he appreciates getting the chance to try teaching.

Josue Vega, a senior at South High School, plays soccer with Folwell Community School third graders. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“It feels good to teach, especially Spanish-speaking kids,” Josue said. “I used to be one of those kids who come to school and didn’t speak English.”

The kids appreciate him, too. 

“I made a score,” a child told Josue. “You didn’t see.”

Steve Riley, 17, also signed up for the class to get college credit. Since he was little, he had considered teaching. Having the opportunity to try it out and work with kids showed him he was on the right path. He decided to become a history teacher.

Steve Riley, a South High student who plans to become a history teacher, with his younger sister, who attends Folwell. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The classes in the education pathways program are not the only college-credit offerings at South High. Still, many students of color find Torralba-Olague’s classes to be one of the most welcoming environments to earn college credit. While only 28 percent of South’s students are white, several students of color said many of the school’s Advanced Placement classes are mostly white. 

Data from Minneapolis Public Schools shows that 56 percent of South High students are currently enrolled in at least one advanced course, a category that includes Advanced Placement, College in the Schools, Post-Secondary Enrollment Options, and Career Technical Education classes.

The enrollment varies across racial and ethnic groups. Seventy-seven percent of white students are enrolled in at least one advanced class. That number is 61 percent for Asian students, 51 percent for both American Indian and Black students, and 38 percent for Hispanic students.

At lunchtime, the high school students accompanied the elementary students to the cafeteria. Children’s shrieks filled the air. Suheyb Nor, 16, expressed mixed feelings about working with young kids.

“It’s all right, you know?” he said. “The kids are too much to handle. They do too much. They don’t listen. They act on their own.”

A Folwell student poses for the camera at lunchtime, showing her missing teeth. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Suheyb signed up because he wanted to take harder classes. His older sister recommended Torralba-Olague as a teacher. This class is more difficult: he didn’t expect all the essays.

Though Suheyb is lukewarm about becoming a teacher—he’s more interested in sports, particularly soccer—he appreciates the break from his typical high school schedule to get hands-on experience and try a career path.

In another corner of the cafeteria, Mariah Valenzuela sat with third-grader Charlie Rodriguez Aguilar, worn out from recess.

“I always say I don’t run,” she joked. “They have me running, playing tag.”

“She’s the best staff,” Charlie said. “She’s nice. She’s so kind.”

Mariah Valenzuela eats lunch with third-grader Charlie Rodriguez Aguilar. Charlie teased Mariah, calling her a “material girl.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘This is my gift’

Like many of her students, Angelica Torralba-Olague didn’t plan on becoming a teacher when she was in high school. But the first Black school staffer she met made an impression—a TRIO advisor who visited Washburn High School twice a week to help low-income and first-generation students apply to college.

Torralba-Olague decided on St. Olaf College, where the TRIO advisor worked. She received a Page Scholarship from the foundation of former NFL star and Minnesota Supreme Court justice Alan Page; as a condition of that scholarship, she was required to mentor K–8 students. She came back to the Twin Cities to volunteer in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools. She realized she had a talent for breaking down complex subjects to make them understandable—and for making learning fun.

First-graders pose with silly faces and their South High classroom helpers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“That experience as a Page Scholar and through the TRIO programs, making an impact through a program that made a difference on me, really helped to solidify: this is my gift,” Torralba-Olague said.

Torralba-Olague’s students agree. Many South students said they signed up for her classes because of a previous class they’d taken with her, or recommendations from siblings and peers. And in September, after a former student nominated her, she received the prestigious Yale Educator Award.

Now in its second year, the offerings in South’s Grow-Your-Own program have expanded. Torralba-Olague teaches a second-year course, which includes both intro to ethnic studies education and multicultural approaches to education, while also co-teaching sections of intro to urban education with two other teachers. 

Last year, 38 students participated in the education pathways program; this year, it’s close to 60, Torralba-Olague said.

“It’s one of the top programs in the state,” said Paul Spies, the legislative action team lead of the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota. “I think the numbers speak for themselves in terms of the growth of the program and the strong leadership of the program. Kids are attracted to educators who relate to them, and who believe in them.” 

The first-grader in the red hoodie informed Sahan Journal he was “the real Spiderman.” Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘A lot of plants waiting to bud’

The Minnesota legislature tripled funding in 2021 for programs to recruit and retain teachers of color after hearing testimony from students and teachers like Hawi and Torralba-Olague. That included a big boost for Grow-Your-Own programs: an increase from $1.5 million to $6.5 million annually.

But even with the additional funding, the Minnesota Department of Education was only able to fund a fraction of applicants, according to a recent state report on the Grow-Your-Own programs. For fiscal year 2022, the state received 52 applications and awarded 11 grants.

“There were several very worthy, high-scoring applications that were not funded, simply because the amount of funds requested far exceeded the amount available,” the report stated. “At least 25 additional applications were strong enough to merit consideration for funding.”

This year, with a Democratic trifecta controlling the Legislature, the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota is requesting more money to meet the demand—$30 million annually, up from $6.5 million. That’s about the total that school districts and charter schools statewide requested last year for Grow-Your-Own programs.

“There’s pent-up demand,” Spies said. “We have dozens of shovel-ready projects, so to speak, or to use the Grow-Your-Own metaphor, a lot of plants that are waiting to bud.”

The coalition is also asking for other provisions that could benefit current high school students of color interested in teaching: funds for college scholarships, student teacher grants, and loan forgiveness.

The proposed bill has been warmly received in legislative committees, and the coalition is now awaiting the state budget process, Spies said. 

“We’re feeling pretty good, compared to previous years,” he said.

A plan for everything

Mariah Valenzuela has her plan for college all set: She received a full four-year scholarship to Carleton College as a QuestBridge Scholar. She plans to get her teaching license and spend a few years in the classroom, become a principal, and then go into curriculum development. 

“I have a plan for everything,” Mariah said.

Mariah knows a lot of college students change their majors. But she is confident she knows what she wants.

“It’s good that I’m getting experience before I go into college, so I know firsthand what I want to do,” she said.

She’s watched how kids pick up on subtleties in body language and tone, and observed positive and negative interactions between teachers and students. 

She’s also seen how the kids gravitate toward her.

“They’re always happy to see me. They always hug me,” Mariah said. “It’s good to be in a place I want to be.”

Update: This story has been updated to include demographic data of students enrolled in advanced courses at South High School.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...