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University of Colorado Denver

UC Denver Downtown Campus Alumni Relations

Alumni Profile

Nina Conley - Master's in administrative leadership and policy studies

Nina Conley and Margarita Blanco at Montbello High
Nina Conley and Margarita Bianco at Montbello High School

Class inspires students of color to become educators

Step into the teachers’ lounge at most pub­lic K-12 schools, and chances are you’ll be surrounded by teachers who look different than their students. Despite a steady rise in the percentage of students of color attending U.S. schools, statistics show roughly 90 percent of teachers are white and more than 70 percent are women—figures that have changed little in the past decade.

That troubles Margarita Bianco, PhD, an assistant professor in the University of Colorado Denver’s School of Education and & Human Development.

"As a person of color I never had any teachers throughout my public school education that looked like me,” she says, noting that throughout her undergraduate and graduate programs, and when she started teaching, she met few colleagues of color. “With each new experience, it became more apparent that I needed to do something about this.”

In 2010, Bianco teamed up with UCD alumna and Montbello High School teacher Nina Conley, MA ’10, to launch “Pathways2Teaching,” an ambitious pilot program aimed at addressing what the two see as an urgent need to boost the number of teachers of color in Colorado.

The program centers around a new elective course, Introduction to Urban Education, that offers juniors and seniors at ethnically diverse Montbello a chance to learn about the teaching profession and explore the tough subject of educational justice while gaining three college credits.

During the course’s inaugural semester, which began in August 2010, 33 students went through an eight-week teaching methods train­ing program and were paired with fourth-grade elementary students to teach them vocabulary. They also had the opportunity to communicate with educational leaders of color—including Vanderbilt University scholar Donna Ford—via Skype. They also immersed themselves in research projects exploring such sticky questions as: Why is there an achievement gap between whites and non-whites? How do drugs, teenage pregnancy and growing up in the foster care system impact a youth’s education? And, most importantly, what can be done to improve things?

“It’s piquing their awareness,” says Conley, a Montbello graduate herself. “They are starting to question things and they are starting to ask, ‘What changes can I make?’”

“When I went here for high school, I never even thought about becoming a teacher. It just wasn’t discussed,” she says. “If I had taken this class back then, I would have been a teacher in 1986.”

In the Denver Public School dis­trict, only 19.8 percent of students are Caucasian but 78 percent of teachers are white (Colorado Department of Education). Statewide, 88 percent of teachers are Caucasian. According to a 2008 report by the Alliance for Quality Teaching, the percentage of students of color statewide rose from 32 percent to 38 percent between 2000 and 2005, while the number of minority teachers statewide rose just 1 percent and even declined in several districts.

The report pointed to research suggesting that “students, on average, learn more from teachers of similar racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Luke Washington, 18, an African American student in the Introduction to Urban Education class agrees: “I just feel like I can connect more and learn better when I have someone teaching me who can relate to my experiences.”

Conley, left a career in the airline industry in her mid-30s to earn her master’s in administrative leadership and policy studies. In February 2011, she was honored with an Our Heroes teaching award by Stand for Children Colorado. She says she is thrilled to see young, urban teens being turned on to the idea of a career in education.

As part of the course, the students have also been given a chance to visit college campuses and have received guidance on how to apply to universities, including a Saturday morning college essay writing boot camp taught by CU Denver professors and former Dean Lynn Rhodes.

Already, several students are plan­ning their future careers as educators. Washington is one of them.

For his class research project, Washington—who has been in the foster care system for several years—explored some of the problems that surround foster care youth trying to succeed at school despite an often unstable home-life.

“Sometimes foster children have had to deal with the eviction of their biological parents, becoming homeless, moving from home to home, parental substance abuse and lack of clean clothes to wear. And schools just don’t have the resources to help them,” he says. “If I were a teacher, I would ask every foster student, what is it that you really need to succeed? I would show them more support.”

Since joining the class, Washington has made up his mind that he wants to pursue a PhD in education with the hope of ultimately “helping educate others with a better understanding of what it means to be a foster kid.” He has applied to several colleges, presented his research report at the Teachers of Color and Allies Summit in November in Boulder, and is now working to plan a conference for teachers, students and community members about foster care and the educational system.

“This class has given students like me opportunities they have never had before,” says Washington. “There should be a class like this in every school.”

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Repurposed from the spring 2011 edition of CU on the Horizon

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