Teachers are the backbone of public education and one of the greatest influences on student success. 

Yet, the United States is facing teacher shortages that could cause lasting harm, especially for students of color and students in low-income districts. The problem is only getting worse as the number of college students obtaining teaching degrees declines and turnover within the profession remains high following the pandemic.

The shortage is even more troubling when combined with the long-standing fact that there are too few teachers of color across the country. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that during the 2020-2021 school year, 80% of public school teachers were white, while only 45% of students in their schools were white.

Superintendent Joan Mast, Ed.D., saw this national trend in Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools, a pre-K-12 district in Union County that she has led since 2019. Finding solutions to complex social issues isn’t easy, but Mast has never shied away from working collaboratively and creatively with community members in Scotch Plains and Fanwood to ensure the district’s eight schools are welcoming places for all students.

Fourteen freshman students interested in a career in education or related fields signed up for the first year of the program.
Fourteen freshman students interested in a career in education or related fields signed up for the first year of the program.

“I heard community members say, ‘We can’t have a child of color go through the public school system and never have a Black or Hispanic teacher,” Mast said. “They are right – it’s a disservice to students.”

In partnership with community member Dr. Leland McGee, Mast wondered, “How do we create a deep pipeline of future SPF teachers who reflect the diversity of students in our towns?” and “How do we ensure our future teachers are guided by our district’s commitment to justice, equity, and inclusion?”

The district’s creative, long-term solution was to develop a Teaching Academy for Social Justice to train and recruit a diverse pool of future teachers by looking inward at Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School’s own freshman class.

Grow Your Own Teacher programs are common across the country as a strategy to combat teacher shortages and develop teachers from within the local community. In some cases, the programs are even backed by state or federal funding.

SPF took this type of Grow Your Own Teacher program a step further by weaving social justice topics into the students’ core classes. For example, a freshman biology class turns the discussion to concepts of race and highlights voices of scientists who were once silenced or ignored.

“We came up with the idea for a social justice academy because teaching is one of the only professions that can truly change the world,” Mast said. “Teachers are in a unique position to address inequities and inspire young people to do the same.”

The board of education was equally excited and eager to support the new program.

“Education is the great equalizer, but only when it is coupled with a commitment to social justice within the school district,” said Tonya Williams, a board of education member. “It is our duty to ensure that every student, regardless of background or circumstance, has the opportunity to thrive in an environment that fosters equity, inclusion, kindness and respect for all.”

Board of education member Amy Winkler agreed, adding that the initiative fits into the district’s strategic planning goals for diversity, equity and inclusion.

“Our board is focused on student success and the many different things that can mean,” Winkler said. “In this case, the Academy is a place to help current students succeed, but also those students will hopefully come back as educators and help future students succeed.”

Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School Assistant Principal Brooke Esposito, who is researching this topic as part of her doctoral dissertation, was tasked with recruiting and building the new program for the 2023-2024 school year.

Fourteen freshmen students interested in a career in education or related fields signed up for the first year of the program. At first, some students were hesitant about making career-related decisions before even entering high school, but they soon realized that the lessons learned, and the college credits earned, could be used in any career path.

From one student in the program who wants to be a Food & Consumer Science teacher in the district to another who wants to go to medical school, the ability to earn dual enrollment credits during all four years of high school is putting them on the fast track to succeed 

Freshman Yolianny Dominguez said that while she aspires to be a surgeon, the program has opened her eyes to the importance of teachers.

“Now, 25% of me wants to be a teacher, instead of a doctor,” she explained. “Teaching is a profession where you can really help kids, especially ones who don’t speak English or come from diverse backgrounds. I want all kids to have a teacher who can understand and relate to them.”

Dominguez and her classmates are taking their core classes together, as well as a History of Education class taught by SPFHS Principal David Heisey, Ed.D., and Supervisor of Science, Engineering, and Gifted and Talented K-12 Guida Faria.

During a recent class, the students discussed how they bonded as a cohort, building trust with each other and with teachers. With that trust comes higher academic expectations and higher rewards, they said.

“The program is a win-win for the students and the district,” Esposito said. “The students learn valuable skills regardless of their future careers, and the distict could see a more diverse pool of teacher candidates in the future. These potential future teachers will also be better equipped to teach their students in a culturally responsive manner.”

The cohort may even start making a difference before they graduate high school; the program calls for the cohort of students to participate in teaching observations in SPF’s elementary or middle schools as freshmen, a teaching assistantship as sophomores and student teaching as juniors. 

“When our younger learners in the elementary and middle schools see the high school students in the classrooms, this could have a positive impact on them,” Esposito said. “For some, it may be one of the first times they are seeing teachers of color as models in the district, and it kickstarts them to think, ‘I want to be a teacher, too.’”

Dominguez is looking forward to presenting to the current class of eighth graders to help recruit program participants for the 2024-2025 school year. 

“I would recommend the academy to younger students because the program provides a safe space for us to have a voice and be heard,” she said. “We have bonded as a cohort since September.”

Esposito is analyzing the program’s outcomes in real-time to determine its effectiveness as a teacher recruitment and retention strategy.

Mast even sees the program becoming the first of many academies at the high school. Mast and Esposito hope the program can be a model for other districts to find out-of-the-box solutions that fit within their communities to address teacher shortages and a lack of diversity in education.

“No matter if the students in the Teaching Academy for Social Justice become teachers in Scotch Plains-Fanwood Public Schools or in another district, or even choose a different profession, they will leave SPFHS with strong communication skills and a deep understanding of social justice issues,” Mast said. “They will leave the district prepared to make their mark on the world, which is what we want for all our students.”

Jessica Reyes is a senior account manager at Laura Bishop Communications. She can be reached at jessica@laura-bishop.com.