When Velvet Saunders was a student at Libbey High School, she joined a club for future teachers.
Two decades later, she’s pursuing her teenage dream.
Velvet Saunders is shown outside of Jones Leadership Academy in Toledo. She is part of the first cohort of students to participate in a new program, Teach Toledo, aimed at educating and training home-grown Toledo teachers.
Ms. Saunders, 37, of Toledo is among the first group of college students to enroll in Teach Toledo, a University of Toledo and Toledo Public Schools partnership that aims to train local residents to be the city’s next teachers.
She and about 20 classmates soon will begin a two-year UT associate of arts degree taught by university faculty. The classes will be held at Jones Leadership Academy, a TPS school on Nebraska Avenue. Once they complete that degree, students will transition to the UT campus to work on a bachelor’s degree and obtain a teaching license.
The goal is to fill Toledo classrooms with diverse, homegrown talent.
“I am destined to be a teacher, and that’s what I’m going to be,” said Ms. Saunders, a paraprofessional at Robinson Elementary, located in the neighborhood where she went to junior high.
Organizers announced Teach Toledo in the spring of 2016 as a way to recruit more minorities into the profession, but they struggled to sign up enough students.
The roster steadily filled after leaders tweaked the program so participants can take college courses Monday through Thursday from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m., instead of during the day as originally proposed.
Teach Toledo also worked with the Monroe Street Neighborhood Center to create the Diverse Teachers Matter Fund. It pays transcript fees for prospective students, who organizers found sometimes could not afford to pay money they owed to colleges they used to attend. Those institutions wouldn’t release student records required for the UT application process until the debt was paid.
Removing that financial hurdle of typically less than $1,000 and spreading the word among TPS paraprofessionals and other groups helped the program draft enough students to start. A few spots remain open as the program can accommodate up to 30 students.
Most students in the first cohort are female, and more than half are black, according to estimated numbers. The group also includes white, Latino, and biracial students, said program coordinator Lynne Hamer, an education professor at UT.
“There’s decades and decades of scholarship that is pretty irrefutable that, for instance, black teachers are more likely to recognize black students for gifted programs. Black students are more likely to graduate if they’ve had at least one black teacher,” she said.
About 19 percent of TPS teachers are black, compared to more than 40 percent of its roughly 22,000 students, according to the district’s most recent data.
TPS will hire about 100 teachers for the coming school year. While the district can’t commit in advance to hiring Teach Toledo graduates, Superintendent Romules Durant has made recruiting diverse teachers a priority. Raised in East Toledo, he is especially interested in hiring educators who grew up here.
“I find that those who are able to build a much faster rapport and relationship with students tend to be those who came from the community and already have a support system,” he said.
The district also has a role in spurring Toledo’s revitalization and can encourage that effort by keeping “our talent local.”
“That’s what’s going to help make Toledo great again — really focusing on our residents,” he said.
Ms. Saunders worked with kindergartners in a special education classroom last school year. She found it satisfying to help children learn to write their names and know they were prepared for first grade.
The experience solidified her interest in leading her own classroom one day.
Plus, she got a little push from her 5-year-old son. As she talked to him about the importance of education, he asked her why she wasn’t in college.
That confirmed her decision: “Mommy has to go back to school now,” she thought.
Amber Alleyne, 30, of East Toledo jumped at the opportunity to enroll in the program which she said will work around her busy schedule. Like Ms. Saunders, she hopes to teach locally once she has her license.
“I definitely want to stay with TPS. That’s where I went to school, and my children. I love the system,” she said.
Students will take a 12-credit class load the first semester, which begins with orientation Aug. 21. UT tuition and fees for full-time, in-state students are $4,621 per semester. Because TPS is providing space for the program, UT will discount tuition by 22 percent. The actual cost students pay depends on individual financial aid packages, said Ms. Hamer.
Those interested in learning more about Teach Toledo can attend an informational meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Mott Branch Library.
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