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Monday, November 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Teaching often out of reach for minority aides

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

Auxiliadora Granizo, instructional assistant at Beacon Hill Elementary School, helps fourth-grader Noe Ramirez, 9, during an after-school homework session.
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Auxiliadora Granizo gave up a relatively lucrative full-time job cleaning houses years ago to be a part-time bilingual instructional assistant at Seattle's Beacon Hill Elementary.

There, the Nicaraguan mother of two organized a Latino PTA, taught English to Latino parents, translated school letters and tutored Latino children after school.

This year, she has been selected from among more than 200 nominees as one of 10 recipients of KCTS Television's 2004 Golden Apple Awards — an honor designed to highlight excellence in schools statewide.

Granizo, 43, would like to become a certified teacher, but the hurdles in time and money are high. She is one of scores of minorities who fill the ranks of school-support staff called paraprofessionals, or "parapros" for short. Experts say they're prime candidates for filling the chronic need in urban districts for teachers of color.

The availability of minority teachers is getting more attention as pressure mounts for schools to get black and Latino students achieving on par with their white and Asian counterparts.

Patricia Gomez, 5, whispers to Auxiliadora Granizo. Experts say programs to help minority paraprofessionals like Granizo become certified teachers might help narrow the public schools' achievement gap.
Research suggests students perform better when taught by teachers of their own race, yet in many urban school districts such as Seattle's, where minorities account for more than half of the enrollment, most teachers are white. On the other hand, more than half the district's teacher aides are minorities.

"People just don't see paraprofessionals as able to be teachers, even though we have the quantitative evidence that they can," said Beatriz Clewell, who led a federal review of teacher-recruitment programs at the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., social-policy think tank.

Her research has found that when they are trained as teachers, paraprofessionals are as effective as former Peace Corps volunteers or people who come to teaching from other fields, and parapros stay longer in tough schools than the other two groups. Studies show the retention rate for parapros in tough schools tops 80 percent after three to five years — about twice that of traditionally prepared teachers.

Yet, Clewell said, states and districts support career switchers more than parapros seeking to get teaching certification, partly because of cost: Most career switchers already have a bachelor's degree, while most parapros have two years or less of higher education.

Clewell says when policy-makers allocate money to recruit teachers for urban schools, they should factor in the cost of high teacher turnover and the hard-to-quantify benefits of having more teachers of color.

Teachers of color can be role models, Clewell said. "They tend to have higher expectations [of minority students] than white teachers. They're able to help students make the bridge from their home culture to the school-learning culture. And there is some limited research now showing that having a teacher of color increases [minority] student-achievement scores."

But the composition of college teacher-preparation programs is mostly white, Clewell and local recruiters say. Black and Latino college grads increasingly have more career doors open to them.

Programs initiated by the philanthropic New York-based Wallace Foundation and later by the Washington Legislature suggest that widely available loans and scholarships would produce thousands of highly qualified minority teachers.

In the 1990s, The Wallace Foundation, which was begun by the founders of The Reader's Digest Association, launched Pathways to Teaching Careers in 23 states.

The program, which became a model for federal legislation in 1998, provided seed money to establish partnerships between universities and school districts. These partnerships recruited nearly 2,600 minorities and supported them through their teacher-preparation courses and internships.

Evelyn Dandy, an education professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., was surprised at how fruitful her partnership was with the local school district.

Over the past decade, the partnership screened about 1,000 applicants and accepted 115 "scholars." About 85 completed the program, and nearly all the graduates are African-American parapros. Thirty percent have since earned master's degrees, including one woman who won a scholarship to Oxford University.

Ninety-five percent of the Pathways graduates have stayed in the Savannah public-school system, Dandy said.

"This lesson here that committed, talented paraprofessionals can be a great source for teachers in high-need districts really remains as relevant today as it was in the 1990s when the program began," said Wallace Foundation spokesman Lucas Held.

In 2001, the state Legislature created alternative routes for becoming a licensed teacher with two groups in mind: midcareer, nonteaching professionals and parapros. Both are eligible for teaching jobs in geographic areas with teacher shortages or in districts with hard-to-fill positions teaching subjects such as science and English as a second language.

In the program's first year, 586 qualified applicants competed for 151 internships, and last year, the state had to cap enrollment at 94 because it didn't receive anticipated federal scholarship funds.

So far, the program has produced 256 teachers, said Jennifer Wallace, executive director of the state's Washington Professional Educator Standards Board. (Wallace has no connection with the Wallace Foundation.)

According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan research arm that responds to legislative queries, 72 percent of the teachers who mentored the program's interns said they believed "Alternative Route candidates were better prepared to teach than new teachers from traditional teacher-education programs." Another 12 percent of mentors said the Alternative Route candidates were "at least as well prepared," Wallace said.

Still, 87 percent of the program's first class of interns are white. The standards board has said that expanding access for prospective teachers "with a deliberate emphasis on ... recruiting greater diversity to the teaching profession" was one of the program's major goals, but it's unclear how it plans to do that.

The number of parapros in the program plunged last year, the Washington State Institute reported, due to a change in the financial aid given to interns: The first class received a stipend equivalent to 80 percent of a starting teacher's salary. Since then, interns have received an $8,000 loan that is forgiven if they work two years in Washington public schools.

The Puget Sound Partnership, based at Seattle Pacific University, is supporting 28 teacher interns this year, six of whom are parapros, said Henry Algera, the partnership's chair. Four interns, one of whom is a parapro, were placed by the university in Seattle Public Schools.

But Granizo's dream of becoming a teacher still eludes her because she doesn't qualify for the state's alternative-certification route: Applicants must have at least a transferable associate's degree.

"A lot of paraprofessionals haven't attained that level of education," Wallace acknowledges. Granizo had five years of college in Nicaragua, but she would need to pay an agency to evaluate whether U.S. colleges would recognize those foreign credits.

In fact, parapros may be lucky just to hold on to their jobs: The federal No Child Left Behind Act — which requires districts to employ only "highly qualified" instructional staff — gives parapros like Granizo until Jan. 8, 2006, to get their associate's degrees, complete two years of college study or pass proficiency tests. High-poverty schools that snub the rules face the threat of losing their federal funds.

About 90 Seattle Public Schools parapros do not meet the new federal requirements, officials said. The district plans to grant one-year sabbaticals to up to 10 paraprofessionals a year so they can complete courses toward satisfying the law.

Even a dynamic educator and award-winning parapro like Granizo may have to prove she can pass tests written in English — although one of her strongest assets is her ability to connect with kids and their parents who don't speak it.

When asked whether she would accept a college scholarship, Granizo nodded quickly, but her confident voice shrank to a whisper: "I'm so afraid to go because I'm pretty sure my English is not the best."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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