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District 87 Program Helps Students Of Color See Themselves As Teachers

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Courtesy Jennifer Brooks
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District 87 teachers Jennifer Brooks and Brandon Thornton co-created Project SEE, a "grow your own" teachers initiative, in partnership with Illinois State University. The first class includes nine students from Irving Elementary School.

A new "grow your own" teacher initiative in District 87 aims to empower young students of color to picture themselves as future educators.

Nine students at Irving Elementary recently took part in their first graduation ceremony of many.

They're the inaugural class of Project SEE—or Students Entering Education—a collaboration between District 87 and Illinois State University.

The long-term goal is to address a lack of diversity in teaching. But short-term, organizers just want keep students on track to succeed in school.

That's why the project gave the kids graduation trophies with their high school graduation date.

T-Neal, 8, is in second grade. She said high school graduations feels like a long time from now. But she is already making some career plans.

“I want to be a nurse to help old people," she said.

And she also has some backup plans.

“If I don’t want to be a nurse, I could get a job to be a teacher or work at a restaurant or wash people’s cars to make money," she said.

Brandon Thornton teaches math at Bloomington High School. He's a co-creator Project SEE.

Thornton said engaging with kids from an early age is important because they're already forming ideas about what it means to hold certain jobs.

"The issue could be that the students are interacting with people who might not understand their culture or background."

“A lot of the programs mainly focus on seniors, and so we (asked) why are we missing out on the 3rd and 4th and 5th graders who might have career goals, and so now is the time to kind of swoop in and empower them so they can see themselves as an educator," he said.

Thornton said even elementary schoolers latch onto the idea that teachers are undervalued.

“Some of it it rooted in truth, but in our interactions with the kids, we want to make sure that it’s positive so they can see, ‘Oh, here are teachers in our district. They’re happy, they’re smiling, they’re living happy lives.’ And so a lot of it is us modeling that behavior," he said.

Thornton said that also benefits the ISU student teachers helping with the program.

He said Project SEE bridges a gap in understanding between students and educators.

“We know that students of color are disproportionately disciplined in the classrooms, which means there are less of them in the building but they’re getting the most in-school suspensions, detentions, out-of-school suspensions—and so there’s an issue there," Thornton said. "The issue could be that the students are interacting with people who might not understand their culture or background.”

Project SEE co-founder Jen Brooks teaches language arts at Bloomington Junior High. She said just spending time with these kids reaffirms that teachers can and should look like them.

"When you look at the classroom, this is what it looks like," Brooks said. "It’s not just one group of people. How can you conceptualize or see yourself as something if you’ve never had that model?"

"Since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Black teacher shortage never replenished itself."

Brooks and Thornton had not met before the creation of project Project SEE. Brooks said they instantly connected over their passion to bring diverse voices into the classroom.

“Statistics show that historically, since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Black teacher shortage never replenished itself. And so, yes, we have a national teacher shortage, but a more pressing issue as it relates to teachers of color," Brooks said.

Thornton said, for now, conversations on race and barriers to entering education "aren't as heavy" as they'd like for them to be, given the students' ages.

But he said this is just year one of Project SEE. The goal is to keep this same class engaged and work with them through high school graduation, bringing on younger generations along the way.

Thornton said students just want to know the basics.

“They’re asking questions about: What’s a salary? What do I have to do to be a doctor? What is college? Those are questions that we were happy to help them with and I think that little spark of curiosity could lead them many places," he said.

Thornton said the highlight of the year was a visit to ISU's campus.

Vincent, 10, had never been to ISU before, despite growing up ten minutes away.

“It was really nice. We got to eat lunch for free. And the teachers there said I should work there someday because I knew my way around and stuff," he said.

Vincent said the trip got him excited about life after graduation "to meet different people or people (he has) never met.”

Thornton said while this sounds simple, being able to visualize college life is a huge motivator.

“I think for a lot of kids, they grow up hearing their families talk about college, maybe they have siblings in college. That’s not necessarily true for everyone," Thornton said. "We wanted them to get on campus so they could see themselves as a college student.”

And no matter what profession the kids ultimately pursue, Thornton said he hopes Project SEE will give them the confidence to know they belong in those spaces.

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