Pionero Scholars
Updated 

Many Hispanic students never have a teacher who looks like them—and that’s a big problem

Timothy Pratt

NASHVILLE— Alondra Piña Mota remembers being too embarrassed to talk to her high school teachers or college counselors about how her family’s reluctance to borrow money might prevent her from going to college.

Her parents, like many Mexican immigrant families, didn’t believe in taking out loans—even for education. Piña Mota had to work to help with household expenses, so she knew that using what she earned to help pay for tuition would be difficult.

Nalexandro Cubero Crespo, who was born in Puerto Rico, said his teachers never called on him in class because, he assumed, “they thought I wasn’t capable.” One of Cubero Crespo’s strongest memories of school was “always raising my hand, waiting for them to call on me.” He graduated with a 3.83 GPA.

Although the 18-year-olds went to different schools in Nashville, they have something in common: Outside of high school Spanish class, both rarely saw a Hispanic teacher while attending school.

Piña Mota and Cubero Crespo believe that having Hispanic teachers might’ve made a difference in their education. Piña Mota said she would’ve felt more comfortable asking for help in navigating how to pay for college. Meanwhile, Cubero Crespo thinks Hispanic teachers wouldn’t have automatically assumed he wasn’t smart.

Now, both are part of a cohort of six students who’ll begin a new, four-year program for undergraduates at Lipscomb University that aims to turn them into teachers. Called Pionero Scholars (or “pioneer scholars”) and housed in the school’s college of education, the program aims to prepare Hispanic and immigrant students for careers in education. The goal? To help close the gap—in Nashville and throughout Tennessee—between the number of Hispanic students and the number of Hispanic teachers. Pionero Scholars’ first cohort also includes an immigrant from the Philippines and another from Bosnia.

The idea is “that teachers who share a linguistic and cultural background with their students have a unique role to play in urban schools,” according to program director Laura Delgado. She’s referring to decades of research on teacher diversity, which suggest that students do better when they’re exposed to teachers who look like them and have similar backgrounds.

Much of that research, along with a smattering of programs elsewhere attempting to fix the lack of diversity in teaching, has focused on minorities in general or on black teachers and students—but not specifically on Hispanics.

If Delgado is right about a cultural match between teachers and students, Pionero Scholars arrived just in time. Since 2000, Tennessee has had the second-fastest-growing Hispanic population in America, jumping from 117,000 to 322,000—a 176% increase. There are similar gains throughout the region, with six of the country’s top-10 fastest-growing Hispanic populations in Southern states. Hispanics are on track to make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population by 2060.

Schools mirror that trend—among students. The share of American students in kindergarten through 12th grade that is Hispanic grew from 19% to 25% between 2003 and 2013. Meanwhile, the black non-Hispanic population dropped from 17% to 16%, and the white non-Hispanic population fell from 59% to 50%.

pratt-hispanic-t-prep-2Laura Delgado

Inaugural cohort of the Pionero Scholars program working on their ideas for a logo in the Missions Center at Lipscomb University.

But the teaching profession hasn’t kept up. In Nashville, Hispanic students almost never see faces like their own at the front of a classroom. Hispanics account for 21.5% of Nashville students, but less than 2% of teachers, according to a recent report. In comparison, white non-Hispanics make up just 31.8% of students, but 73.9% of teachers. Put another way, that’s 223 Hispanic students for each Hispanic teacher, and 6.4 white non-Hispanic students for each white non-Hispanic teacher.

A similar gap, though less stark, exists in schools nationwide. Although the teaching force has become more diverse since the 1980s, the relative number of minority teachers is still extremely low.

Richard Ingersoll, education and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, detailed the numbers in “The State of Teacher Diversity in American Education,” a recent report published by the Albert Shanker Institute, a nonprofit organization endowed by the union American Federation of Teachers. About 44% of students and 17% of teachers in American public schools are minorities (up from 27% and 12%, respectively, in 1987-88), Ingersoll wrote. Just over 21% of students are Hispanic, compared to 7.8% of teachers in 2011-12, up from 3% in 1987-88, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Advocating to increase the number of Hispanic teachers and minority teachers in general can draw pushback, Delgado explained. “People assume we’re saying that white teachers aren’t good,” she said, adding that a recent local news article mentioning her program attracted negative comments such as, “Too many white teachers?!??”

Jose Luis Vilson, a math teacher and author of This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, said that with increased teacher diversity, “Everybody benefits, including white teachers, who can learn from teachers of color about how to relate to their [minority] kids.”

Research largely supports the theory that a more diverse teaching force is good for students. In a 2004 study of Tennessee third-graders, Thomas S. Dee, then a Swarthmore College economics professor, saw slight improvements in reading and math test scores when black and white non-Hispanic students were assigned to teachers of the same race. Meanwhile, Anna Egalite, an education professor at North Carolina State University, found similar effects for black elementary school students in Florida matched with black teachers.

Egalite and a colleague are working on a study that looks at how hiring teachers with similar backgrounds as their students impacts other aspects of the latter’s educational experience, including “academic perceptions and attitudes about … teachers and classrooms.” Her preliminary findings are that “students who share racial and/or gender characteristics with their teachers tend to report higher levels of personal effort, happiness in class, feeling cared for, student-teacher communication, post-secondary motivation, and academic engagement.”

These outcomes, Egalite added, may be the result of “demographically similar” teachers taking on the role of mentors, having higher expectations for their students, and using “targeted instructional approaches” that result from shared cultural knowledge. Vilson, the math teacher, wrote about an example of this: When teaching a class on percentages to Latinx students, he got them to think about how “centavo”—the word for cent in Spanish—shares the same linguistic root as percent in English, and how they both relate to portions of 100. Their faces lit up with understanding, he said.

Still, much of the research findings to date come from studies that look at minorities as a group, or black students and teachers, not Hispanics.

“When you look at the history of this nation, inequity has affected African-American students the longest,” Pionero Scholars program director Delgado said. “Especially in cities in the South, where there weren’t that many Latinos, the conversation has fallen along black-white lines—and so have research and programs. Now the situation has changed so quickly—not just in Tennessee, but in Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky”

“I would prefer there to be more research on Hispanics,” she added. “It could prove what we know to be anecdotally true.”

“As Hispanics, we have other things to offer students. In our experiences, our struggles.”

- Nalexandro Cubero Crespo, a student entering Lipscomb University’s Pionero Scholars program this fall

One reason why the gap between the numbers of minority teachers and minority students persists is because minority teachers leave teaching at higher rates than white teachers.

“I can’t see the gap being closed until we tackle the retention issue,” education profressor Ingersoll said. “It’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes.”

Delgado said she hopes the Pionero Scholars program will encourage graduates to stick with teaching by providing support and financial incentives. For example, the program includes a $10,000 annual scholarship. (Tuition at Lipscomb University this fall is $27,472 per year. Students are chosen from local high schools, and Lipscomb has an agreement with these schools that includes a pledge to hire graduates from the program.)

Delgado also plans to meet weekly with her students throughout the school year to discuss their transition to college, what they’re learning, and what it all means to them. The goal is to help first-generation college students feel less isolated, and to support them when they face challenges. “The first thing the students said to me when they visited the campus was, ‘There’s a lot of white people, here,’ ” she said, laughing.

Most of their fellow students in high school were black, Hispanic, or immigrants from a host of countries. After recruiting them for Pionero Scholars’ first cohort, as well as helping them through the application and financial-aid process, Delgado has developed close relationships with the students, partly due to her own background as the daughter of a Cuban immigrant. This connection is strengthened by seemingly small details, like being the first authority figure to pronounce their names correctly.

Pionero Scholars doesn’t obligate students to stay with education as a major, but changing majors means losing the scholarship. If they make it through the four-year program, Delgado plans to provide mentors from the education field to guide them through their first two years of teaching.

“That would be critical to our long-term success,” she said. “The goal would be to help get them at least into their third year of teaching.”

Alondra Piña Mota said some of her former classmates are surprised when she tells them she wants to be a teacher. She graduated with a 3.63 GPA. They tell her, “You could be a doctor with that GPA.” She replies, “Teachers teach future doctors.”

Piña Mota’s mother, who works in the kitchen at a Chuck E. Cheese’s franchise, has told her, “Get a job where you like getting up in the morning. Not like me.”

For his part, Nalexandro Cubero Crespo is eager to stand in front of a classroom someday.

“The whole purpose of education is not just to learn about a new subject, but to find out about who you are, and what you want to do in life,” he said. “As Hispanics, we have other things to offer students. In our experiences, our struggles.”

“Hispanic students can identify with me, and non-Hispanic students can broaden their minds about the world.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Teacher Preparation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Nalexandro Cubero Crespo’s name.