By Tiffani Jackson
The State Journal-Register
As a single mother of four, pursuing the goal of becoming a teacher was always a struggle for Tonika Palmer.
She had already gained a bachelor’s degree in political science and wanted to further her education, but finances and other responsibilities got in the way.
Palmer became a paraprofessional at Laketown Elementary School so she could still make a difference in the lives of the next generation even if she didn’t have her teaching license. But that plan recently changed as she’s now back in the classroom due to a Springfield program intended to help solve the teacher shortage and diversify the teaching ranks.
“I needed money to go back to school because I had already used my money. As a mother there was always conflict with work and finding an opportunity to finance school so when I found out this program would be willing to pay for me to go while being a teacher assistant, I was definitely interested,” Palmer said.
The Diverse Workforce Pipeline program, a joint effort of Springfield School District 186 and University of Illinois Springfield, launched in January to help candidates of color earn licenses to teach in local schools.
District 186 chief equity and school improvement officer Jamar Scott said the conversation about the program started when his team debated how to spend its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds. Turning its attention to Springfield’s 1976 desegregation order, the team agreed that the district has not been in compliance.
“The order says we should work to get our teaching staff to reflect the diversity of our community, so we looked at data from the most recent census. Each racial demographic and our school teaching population should mirror that, yet we have not been anywhere close,” he said.
Based on the 2020 census, 87.8% of District 186 teachers are white while only 12.2% are minorities. Scott and Interim Director of the UIS School of Education Christie Magoulias believe the issue stems from recruiting.
“If you rarely see people that look like you doing this, you never think this is something you can do. You also have a lot of options when you graduate from college so getting people to come to Springfield when they have a Chicago or a larger urban area is often difficult unless you have candidates who are from areas similar to here,“ Scott said.
“We haven’t done a great job of recruiting people of color into education or looking into experiences and going where they are to ask how they can bring their culture, knowledge, and experience to our profession,” Magoulias said.
“Times have changed and now we’re really focused on not only increasing the amount of teachers we produce, but serving first generation college students, populations of color, and those of lower socioeconomic status by lifting them into education because this is the greatest profession on earth.”
The Diverse Workforce Pipeline program educates locals who have desired to become teachers but struggle because of financial ability. It provides relief through the district’s use of some of its ESSER funds to pay tuition, books and fees for candidates enrolled in the program.
“These are teacher aides, substitutes, personal aides, and volunteers who’ve shown commitment to District 186. So the district and UIS will be helping those folks who want to become licensed teachers get to that point which is going to improve their salary, give them the professional license they need, and have them turn around and be employed immediately in district 186 to cover the many classrooms that don’t have a teacher right now,” Magoulias said.
The program offers courses at the University of Illinois Springfield or Millikin University based on the candidate’s choice of study. It officially started this spring and so far eight people have enrolled.
Palmer is one of the eight and is taking courses in special education through the University of Illinois Springfield teacher educator program. She said she was appreciative of the Diverse Workforce Pipeline targeting candidates of color because if students of color see teachers who look like them, it makes a difference.
“One of my first students in the district was a student of color and we are very close. To this day he looks for me, he wants to know where I am, and what took me so long to get to work because he identifies with me so I think it’s important for them to not only see a person of color, but someone who understands culturally about the things they deal with,” Palmer said.
“While other people may not understand why a child is doing a certain thing, saying a particular saying, or understand that they don’t mean to be ‘hood,’ I can. I know that’s all they see at home and in their communities so I have a duty to help them overcome and see that they can be better,” she said.
Palmer looks forward to the benefits the program will provide for the community and the boost of confidence in her career. She said she hopes to still make an impact even if she does stand out.
“I’m hoping it’ll help me overcome the challenge of being a minority in a field predominantly carried by Caucasian women,” Palmer said. “ I want to learn how to not only fit in with the community but make an impact as a person of color and lead colored children in a way that works for them. It’s not about assimilating them to a particular way but allowing them to still be themselves and learn.”
By spreading the word and sharing her experience, Palmer has faith that her presence will inspire more people to enroll in the program. She starts classes in pursuit of her license to teach special education in the fall and is eager for the future of representation.
“I hope it encourages men and women of color to look into this program because our kids are scattered throughout the district. Hopefully me being in the program will encourage people to know that even if they don’t work in education but they want to, there’s room.”
Among the drivers of the Diverse Workforce Pipeline program is the education committee of Springfield’s NAACP. Sherri Hamilton, chair of the committee, said it is important to hold the district accountable to the desegregation order. Her team has worked with Scott to make sure the district stays on its job.
“The NAACP has not stopped watching, we know that it hasn’t been fulfilled and the district has an obligation to do that. Mr. Scott has been very proactive in his role since he’s been there and it’s exciting to see that the funds are coming forth to put some action in place,” Hamilton said. “We’d like to see District 186 become one of the best educational systems in the nation and making priority proactive decisions such as the pipeline to recruitment and retention of the intellectual, emotional, and social excellence that diversification can offer, will move us forward in that direction.”
Scott said the NAACP’s help made a huge difference in the strategy of the program.
“They have the oversight to make sure that this continues as a goal and the support they provide is important. It helps us to think outside of the box about whether we can use money to work towards a certain effort, so I’m looking forward to where we go,”
He said hopefully in the next five years there won’t be talks about being in compliance with the order, and the amount of district teachers will match where the student population is.
“We’re in a good place and have a good team in our district office and this is something that’s important to all of us so we want to live to see the reality and not just hope for it,” Scott said.
Sixty people have expressed interest in the program so far. Scott hopes the program will become permanent and help more candidates. He hopes to find more sources of funding.