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Holmes Master’s Program ‘a feather in our cap’

(From left) Pamela Scheck, Jenever Ellis, and Mikayla Wells are the first three students in the School of Education's Holmes Master's Program. (Photo by Michael Fiedler)

By Loretta Waldman

Attracting minority candidates to the teaching profession — and those from other underrepresented backgrounds — has been a longstanding challenge for teacher preparation programs around the country. Leaders at CCSU’s School of Education and Professional Studies excitedly announced a new program this fall aimed at addressing the shortage in Connecticut by encouraging greater diversity among students pursuing Master’s in the Art of Teaching (MAT) degrees.

Offered through the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education (AACTE), the Holmes Master’s Program provides financial and professional support to minority and non-traditional Master’s degree students both during their studies and in their first few years of teaching, says Michael Alfano, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies. In addition to people of color, the program targets “late-deciders,” students who have undergraduate degrees in other disciplines who later decide to pursue a career in teaching and need a Master’s degree to do so, he says. 

The program’s first three students at CCSU began taking courses this summer and will begin their student teaching in January. Jenever Ellis, Pamela Scheck ’07, and Mikayla Wells ’16 are all returning to school full time, years after completing their undergraduate degrees. Two are juggling their studies with family demands in pursuit of their dream of teaching special education. The other left a career as an auditor and wants to teach math.
“It’s a really big commitment to change career trajectories and take a year out of their lives for full-time study,” says Sally Drew, director of the MAT program.

Ellis, 41, grew up in Jamaica and says the lack of services for special needs students there, and gaps in services she later observed working as a paraprofessional and substitute teacher in Hartford Public Schools, made her want to become a special education teacher. Scheck, 35, cites her life experiences — which include being the mom of a child with autism — as her motivation. Wells, 23, earned her undergraduate degree in accounting from CCSU and, while working as an auditor, realized she wanted to teach math and help students succeed.

“I come from a bi-racial family, she says. “As a former student and future educator I understand the importance of seeing yourself in your teacher. Many of our minority students are not currently reflected in our educators.”

Federal and local data bear this out. According to a 2015 US Department of Education report, 37 percent of the nation’s population during the 2011-12 school year was minority and 44.1 percent of all elementary and secondary students were minority, but only 17.3 percent of all elementary and secondary teachers were minority. In Connecticut, the percentage of students who represented racial or ethnic minorities is 42.7 percent, while nearly 92 percent of the certified teaching staff in the state is white, according to a 2014-15 report from the state Department of Education.

Retaining minority teachers is an ongoing issue as well. Nationally, the turnover rate for Hispanic (21.8 percent) and Black (20.6 percent) teachers is higher than non-minority teachers (15 percent), according to a 2012-13 survey by the US Department of Education.

“We have a significant amount of work to do, and this is an effort to move in the right direction,” says Alfano, noting that the Holmes Program was one of several initiatives created to address the disparity.

But the Holmes program goes beyond boosting the ranks of minority teachers and is open to any candidate coming from an underrepresented background, according to Drew. CCSU’s affiliation with the program is a feather in the school’s proverbial cap, Alfano says. The department petitioned AACTE for more than a year to become a participating school, he said.

In addition to financial support, participants attend the AACTE annual conference in Washington, DC, where they meet with the state congressional delegations to discuss policy and pending legislation. Participation in a national organization also gives CCSU access to the resources needed to support teacher candidates in their first year of teaching.

“If the culture isn’t welcoming or supportive, if they do not feel a part of the culture, many of these candidates leave,” Drew says. “Holmes understands research, support, and retention. As part of a national network our students will have access to professional development, collaboration, and financial support. It has really extended our professional network beyond our School of Education and Professional Studies.”

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