Over the past 15 years, refugee and immigrant students have transformed the city of Portland and its public school system. However, teachers have remained overwhelmingly white, and there are efforts to increase the diversity of the staff — by encouraging Portland students to eventually become teachers.
Mohammed Albehadli, 21, remembers arriving at a Christian school in Philadelphia only a year or so after coming to the United States from Iraq. He says when he looked around at his mostly white teachers and classmates, he felt alone.
“It felt different to not have someone I could relate to. I could see I was the only Arab there, and I only spoke Arabic. It felt like, you know if you speak two different languages? At this school, I felt like I was only the English side of me,” he says.
Albehadli moved to Portland soon after. But he says the feeling never totally went away.
Experts say this is an issue nationwide, and research has found that a diverse teaching staff makes a big difference for students. A 2017 study found that having just one African-American teacher in certain grades reduced dropout rates for African-American students and increased college aspirations.
Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana says in his school district, more than 40 percent of kids identify as students of color. Yet nearly 97 percent of the district’s teachers are white.
“It was an issue that kids talked about frequently. That they really wanted to see more people in their classrooms in leadership roles, etc. that looked like them and shared their experience,” he says.
This summer, the district has taken the first step to fix that imbalance.
Every Friday morning for the past month, about 40 Portland students and community members, many originally from other countries, have come to a small classroom at the University of Southern Maine. All are taking an education class, tuition-free, through a new initiative from the district and university.
While the program is open to anyone, it’s specifically targeted to recruit new teachers of color. District staffers teach the students about the educational system, from special ed to civil rights. During the other four days of the week, those in the program go inside the classroom and assist Portland teachers with summer school.
Portland officials say with this combination of college class and on-the-job experience, they hope more students of color from the district will want to be teachers, and perhaps come back to Portland to fulfill their career goals.
Portland High School graduate Amy Umutoni says she was originally planning to go into the medical field. But she says after working at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, she’s having second thoughts.
“It’s making me think of what I should actually do. Be a teacher or a medical doctor? What impact will I do in the community?” she says.
But this one class is only the first step in a long process of becoming a teacher in Maine. The district says if current high school or college students want to continue after this program, they can work with USM to carve out a path to get a teaching degree, though that will likely take years.
The process is even a challenge for immigrants with extensive teaching experience in other countries.
Berekit Bairu already has a bachelor’s degree and taught math for 15 years in his home country of Eritrea. He says with the summer program, he’s made strong connections with the school district, but for him to actually get hired, he’ll need to get certified. That requires money and time to find the paperwork from his home country, get it translated into English and take the necessary certification tests. But he says he’s committed.
“So it could take, I don’t know how much time, but it could take like six months, 1 year, two years, it doesn’t matter,” he says.
Barbara Stoddard, the district’s HR director, knows this is an issue. She says she’s talking to the state and eyeing grants to make the process easier.
“Those are challenges. But we are certainly interested in trying to facilitate that process. Because there are opportunities for these folks to be hired,” she says.
And Margarito Bianco has some advice for Portland as it tries to help immigrants become teachers.
“The high school kids, their programs should look very different from adults who are already licensed who are here from another country, right?” she says.
Bianco was the force behind a program in Colorado called Pathways2Teaching, which has served more than 300 students in the Denver area. She applauds Portland’s efforts to address teacher diversity, but other national experts say that Portland shouldn’t be the only district in Maine talking about these issues.
Professor Travis Bristol, who studies education at Boston University, says teacher diversity should be a goal for districts throughout the state.
This story was originally published July 31, 2017 at 4:28 p.m. ET.