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Building Teacher Diversity in the Schools

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The Portland Teacher Program, celebrating its 10th year, is slowly changing Portland’s classrooms.

By Susan Hereford

In Oscar Gilson’s fifth grade classroom in North Portland, students interchange the words maestro and teacher easily. Gilson speaks a sentence or two in Spanish, then embellishes in English. Words like "Que mas," "Los Estados Unidos," "te gusta," "problemo," are sprinkled throughout the afternoon lesson to his 19 students enrolled in one of just a handful of bilingual classrooms across Portland Public Schools’ district. Half of his students are fluent in Spanish, half in English.

Teaching this way is second-nature for Gilson, a Latino, who perfected English after moving to this country from Mexico when he was 15.

Now 27 and fresh out of college, Oscar Gilson is a first-year teacher and graduate of a unique program between Portland Community College, Portland Public Schools and Portland State University to put teachers of color in the classrooms. The Portland Teacher Program (PTP) celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and in June will have graduated and placed approximately 50 teachers of color in Portland Public Schools.

According to PTP Director Deborah Cochrane, whose office is on PCC’s Cascade Campus, children of color comprise 34 percent of the enrollment in Portland Public Schools. Yet, the district’s teaching workforce is 89 percent white. These figures mirror the lack of diversity nationwide. It is estimated that by the year 2020, children of color will make up 46 percent of elementary and secondary school age children, yet only about 10 percent of today’s teachers come from African American, Native American, Hispanic or Asian American groups.

"Look at the stats," says Cochrane. "We are trying to create more equity and a better balance….

"Students of color," she continues, "need to see people that look like they do, (in front of the classroom). It’s role modeling success."

At the same time, she adds, "For a white kid to have a Latino teacher may make all the world of difference as they go out into the world. They see that there are many truths, many realities …"

In 1991, Gilson was out of the Navy, just 20 years old, and searching for a direction. "I was unsure about my life," he says. "I had spent three years in the Navy … One of my experiences I liked the best was to go to the orphanages and work with kids." The Navy sets up volunteering as an on-leave alternative to the typical bar hopping and partying.

Gilson took to it and at the orphanage he got a glimpse into his future. He is a now a teacher, where he wants to be.

"I love it," exults the new Beach Elementary teacher. "Tomorrow is my first parent-teacher conference."

Gilson spent three years studying at PCC. He then entered Portland State’s department of education, ultimately earning a master’s degree in education at PSU.

It was an uphill road all the way. Like most of the PTP students, he had to work to support himself while going to school. He rattles off the jobs: "I pumped gas, I washed cars, I worked at a fitness center, I did cannery work."

His first year teaching put him at Portland’s front line of education reform. Beach Elementary is earnestly trying to pull up its students’ low state test scores following a re-organization one and one-half years ago that brought city-wide attention to the school.

Of his class, Gilson confides, "They are behind," then adds quickly, "but it’s a good class." He wants them to catch up.

When Gilson began his studies, he wasn’t sure he was college material. "The GI Bill motivated me to try college," he says. "PCC gave me the confidence to get through. There are smaller classes, nice teachers who care about students."

Plus, with PCC’s lower tuition, the GI Bill money went further for living expenses. And his mother, also a PTP graduate who teaches at Lane Middle School, encouraged him to apply for the scholarship.

He became one of a cohort group that Cochrane refers to as a "grow your own" program that spans sixth grade through graduate school. It is made up of several pieces:

— The Academy for Future Educators, sponsored by Portland Public Schools, each year helps approximately 100 elementary and secondary students of color gain leadership skills and exposure to different aspects of the teaching profession.

— At Portland Community College and Portland State University, approximately 50 ethnic minority students who are committed to teaching and have demonstrated merit receive tuition waivers and special counseling and support services.

— Upon graduation from PSU, the students are given priority hiring status with Portland Public Schools where they make a two-year teaching commitment to the district.

Camille Brahm, another graduate of the program, is now in her second year at Humboldt Elementary in North Portland. She teaches a third and fourth grade blend and says she chose Humboldt school because, "As an African American woman, I wanted to work in my community and be a role model for the children.

My first year I learned just as much as the kids. learned what works, what didn’t, I made new friends … I changed lives."

Of her own professional development, she is equally enthusiastic. "I feel liberated. I now have a career, not just a job."

About James Hill

James G. Hill, an award-winning journalist and public relations writer, has been the Communications Specialist for the Office of Public Affairs at Portland Community College since November of 1999. A graduate of Portland State University, J... more »

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