Now, Williams, 21, is in the teacher preparation program at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.
He’s part of West Chester’s newly launched PRIZE (Partnering in Raising Inclusive, Zealous Educators), which aims to help school districts “grow their own” teachers, while boosting the profile of a profession that’s taken hits in recent years, said Desha Williams (no relation to Imere), dean of West Chester’s College of Education and Social Work.
“We don’t do a good enough job telling our stories,” Desha Williams said. “We do the work, we celebrate students’ accomplishments, and then we just get up and do it again the next year.”
Across the country, fewer young people are going into teaching, and too few are Black, like Imere Williams.
There are reasons, educators say, that teaching is now seen as less attractive: an emphasis on standardized testing that’s taken the joy out of the profession and created distrust of the education system; classrooms that are targets for political attacks; less-than-stellar pay; and tough working conditions that have only gotten worse with the pandemic.
Teachers themselves often aren’t encouraging young people to follow in their footsteps.
That’s why Jennifer Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s College of Education and Human Development sees the need for a national campaign to boost interest, similar to that of the U.S. Marines.
Only in this case, she said, it would be “the few, the proud, the teachers.”
While the percentage of students of color in teacher preparation programs nationally has grown, in Pennsylvania, classes have remained overwhelmingly white. In 2018-19, for example, just 5% were Black and 4% Hispanic.
West Chester’s PRIZE program aims to change that.
High school students will take dual-enrollment classes in teacher education through West Chester at no charge.
They’ll get internship opportunities and have mentors. The cost of the classes will be covered by West Chester and the host school district. They will be offered in person or online, removing transportation as a barrier.
If students maintain a minimum of a 3.0 high school GPA and get a C or better in the classes, West Chester automatically will admit them.
During college, they will return to their host district for observations and student teaching and hopefully a job after graduation.
Pam Grossman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, said “grow your own” programs have been successful.
“Most people teach within 30 miles of where they went to high school,” she said. “If you recruit locally, people are more likely to stay.”
Hitting the ground ‘running’
Interest in “grow your own” programs began in 2005 when Illinois adopted a statewide effort. The big growth came about a decade later when Washington instituted a competitive grant program, followed by similar efforts in Texas and Minnesota.
Today, said Amaya Garcia, deputy director of the PreK-12 program at New America – a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C. – 31 states are funding some type of “grow your own” programs.
While Pennsylvania is not among those states, one school district in the state was the first to sign up to partner with West Chester.
Like other school districts, Kennett Consolidated School District in Chester County, which serves 4,000 students, has seen the number of applicants for teaching positions decline.
Some jobs, particularly in special education, have become harder to fill, said Superintendent Dusty Blakey.
West Chester’s program, he said, fits with the district’s larger mission of helping high school students see career relevance in their classes and try out a potential job path before college.
At the same time, the students will grow and learn in Kennett’s culture and “hit the ground running” when they are hired, he said. The district has agreed to employ at least three program graduates per year.
‘Walk in my greatness’
Kennett High School senior Cecelia Perrotti, 17, of Landenberg, had already eyed a teaching career and West Chester, but got even more excited when she heard the dean and Imere Williams speak about the program.
“The goal is to raise inclusive and zealous educators,” Perrotti said. “That’s just like my dream job right there.”
It’s been Williams’ dream, too. His fourth-grade assignment on a poster board was titled Read All About Me, answering questions like his favorite colors and animal, as well as what he’d like to be when he grows up.
“I kept it because that’s when he started showing his identity and passion and what he wanted to do,” said Denise Curry, 55, Williams’ mother.
That Williams wanted to be a teacher that young is unusual, given his own experience at James Rhoads Elementary in his West Philadelphia neighborhood.
He said he was bullied and still has a bump on his head from where another student hit him.
But then he went on to Boys Latin for middle and high school. Not only did he feel safe, but the school gave him opportunities, he said, that set him up for success. He became a member of student government, joined the Latin Club and was named one of two student representatives on the Philadelphia Board of Education, sitting next to former Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. at meetings.
Boys Latin is also where he encountered his first Black male educator, Mikal Anderson, his sixth-grade history teacher, who had a profound effect on him.
“He told me to walk in my greatness,” recalled Williams, the first in his family to go to college.
When he graduates, he intends to teach in Philadelphia, ideally at Boys Latin.
About the Solutions Journalism Network
Each week, we partner with the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about social issues. This week’s stories come from other sources.