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This Life: Spelman betting on more black teachers to make the difference

It’s been a year since I met Valerie Camille Jones, the Spelman College graduate who’d made a name for herself teaching math at the Ron Clark Academy.

She was 38 then, known for doing just about anything to get her students’ brains working. She had a trophy case in a corner of her classroom to prove it.

But Jones wasn’t just a good teacher, she cared about her students, too. Even after they left her classroom, they stayed in touch. She inspired them to reach their full potential.

I thought about her during a visit last week at Spelman, where Andrea Lewis, an associate professor and chair of the education department, shared plans the HBCU has to increase the number of African-American teachers and thus slow the achievement gap of black students.

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Despite its long history with training teachers, Spelman’s teacher certification program isn’t that well-known even among its student body.

For the longest time, some even believed the education department had been shut down, Lewis said. Truth is, beginning in 2009, it was restructured as the Education Studies Program, with an updated curriculum and an entirely new faculty. The retooling aligned the program with the trend in teacher preparation to increase teacher candidate time assisting and learning from certified teachers in the field.

During this time, Spelman’s teacher certifications never went away, and the program was re-established in the fall of 2016 as the education department. With three recently tenured faculty members, in addition to nine certification programs, options now include a new teacher certification preparation program designed for college graduates to earn their certification.

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That’s a good thing. If we ever needed black school teachers, we sure need them now.

The widest achievement gap between white students and their black and Hispanic peers in the country happens to be right here in Atlanta. What’s more, only 17 percent of black fourth-graders in Atlanta are reading at or above grade level, according to the latest scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Studies show that for low-income black students, having a teacher who is also black can be a game changer, especially for low-income urban kids.

According to research from Johns Hopkins University,

Spelman College grad Seana Deas engages children at an elementary school in Varadero, Cuba, during one of the school’s study trips. The HBCU hopes to increase the number of African-American teachers and thus slow the achievement gap of black students. CONTRIBUTED (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

American University and University of California, Davis, students who are black and come from low-income families and have just one black teacher in third through fifth grades are 29 percent less likely to drop out of high school.

Boys in this demographic benefit even more — they were almost 40 percent less likely to drop out.

Black educators, however, are hard to come by. Their numbers have been declining at least since 2000, Lewis said.

In Georgia, they make up just 20 percent of teachers while black students comprise 35 percent of the elementary, middle and high school population. In the United States, black teachers make up 7 percent of the profession. Black students make up nearly 16 percent of the school population.

From 2002 to 2012, 26,000 black teachers left the nation’s classrooms for various reasons, Lewis said.

Because African-American teachers share a cultural connection to and often live in the same communities as these students, they are more committed to the well-being of their students and are natural role models, she said. Plus, special education and behavioral referrals decrease significantly.

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Lewis believes Spelman’s new certification program will help fill the void left by school districts’ dwindling retention rates and make sure teachers are properly trained to deliver lessons in ways that meet the diverse learning styles of students.

Although a lot of Spelman students enter the field of education, they don’t know certification training is an option on campus.

Out of some 500-plus Spelman seniors, only 14 are enrolled this year in the college’s teacher certification program. Lewis believes that is due to a lack of awareness about the program, and would like to see that number increase to 50.

“Part of the challenge is getting the word out,” she said. “We have alumnae who call and say they thought the department was shut down.”

Not only is that not true, Spelman is still turning out some pretty impressive teachers.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Among its most recent graduates, four were named teachers of the year in their respective school systems, and one was named rookie of the year in her district. All of them have a 100 percent pass rate on the GACE exam.

To ensure the success of pre-K to K-12 students, Lewis said, “Everything we do is student-centered.”

That means giving students the classroom experiences they need to be able to teach all children; teaching them how to advocate for students; and exposing them to parent engagement activities so they “understand how the inner workings of community impact schooling.”

Once a year, they travel to Cuba to study the country’s education system. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Researchers say black teachers make the difference because of something called the “race match effect” or the “role model effect.”

When students see themselves reflected in the role models in their lives, they are more likely to invest in themselves and their education and more likely to believe they can be successful, too.

“It’s all about the power of expectations,” Lewis said.

We’ve heard this before. Spelman’s Valerie Jones has the trophy case to prove it.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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