Increasing representation in K-12 classrooms

From left: Abdirahman Hassan, Tabb Christopher, Program Coordinator Marvis Kilgore, Charmont Lee and Giovanni Saunders.

Abdirahman Hassan and Charmont “Teddie” Lee already are making a difference in their Minnesota communities. Hassan is an equity specialist for Bloomington Public Schools and Lee is an educator in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

But they want to do more to make sure K-12 students see more diversity among their teachers.

“A lot of Black students don’t have Black teachers,” Hassan says.

In Minnesota, during the 2019-2020 school year, 11.6% of students enrolled in K-12 schools were Black/African American but only 1.5% of Minnesota’s K-12 teachers holding a license were Black/African American, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

“We need to see more teachers of color in front of students to create relatability for students,” Lee says.

Hassan and Lee are participants in Sirtify, a program at Normandale Community College that aims to increase the number of Black male teachers in K-12.

Sirtify participants receive academic and professional support, leadership development and cultural competency training on their journey to become a licensed K-12 teacher. They also receive annual scholarships of up to $10,000 covering all tuition, fees, books and supplies, plus a contribution toward cost of living. The scholarships are funded by donations to the Normandale Community College Foundation and other sources.

Keenly aware of the need to close representation gaps, Normandale Community College President Joyce Ester had envisioned this program for many years.

“There is widespread concern across our community about the lack of diversity among teaching professionals,” Ester said in a press release about Sirtify. “The intentionality and specificity of Sirtify positions Normandale to be a part of the change that students and communities need. This program will transform not only the lives of the students we educate at Normandale, but the lives of the students they will teach in the future.” 

The inaugural Sirtify cohort started in August 2021 as the Black Men in Teaching program. A second cohort was added in January, and the program became known as Sirtify last month.

A good investment

For Program Coordinator Marvis Kilgore, Sirtify is a passion project. Kilgore was hired in 2021 to develop and lead the project. Right away, he knew he’d have to be very intentional with the program design. He knew some would question why a program like Sirtify was needed.

His answer: “An investment in one community is an investment in all of us.”

Studies have shown that representation in the classroom matters. A National Bureau of Economic Research study of students in Tennessee found that Black students who were randomly assigned to at least one Black teacher in grade school were nine percentage points more likely to graduate from high school. They also were six percentage points more likely to enroll in a postsecondary institution than Black students who were not assigned any Black teachers.

Kilgore started his work with conversations. He met with community partners, school leaders and department chairs to help shape a program that would be unique and would meet the unique needs of potential participants.

His work was made easier knowing he had the backing of Ester.

“I hit the jackpot,” he says. “I have all of the college’s resources available should I need them.”

Designing the program was only part of it, though. Kilgore also had to recruit students. He promoted the program to K-12 principals and counselors, as well as concurrent enrollment teachers who could spread the word.

“Word of mouth has been my secret weapon,” Kilgore says.

Lee, who enrolled in the first cohort, heard about the program from a cousin.

In visiting schools, he also saw several Black men serving as paraprofessionals and in other support roles – like Hassan – and knew they could benefit from Normandale’s new program.

Hassan joined the program in January.

There are currently six students in the program. Kilgore expects that by 2025, the program’s enrollment will be 20 to 25 students. 

Beyond textbooks

For Hassan and Lee, the cohort model and tailored supports are big draws of Sirtify.

Though the participants’ class schedules may vary, they take one class together a semester as a cohort.

“Cohorts are important because it provides a support system while in the program and while in the profession,” Ester says. “Until the teaching profession is diversified with more Black male teachers, it is likely that the men in the program will enter schools and districts where they are the only one. To have a cohort gives them people that they can lean on.”
Lee and Hassan are taking a college success course together in the evenings this semester with other Sirtify participants. The course provides “a lot of knowledge you wouldn’t find in a textbook,” Lee says.

And being part of a cohort gives him an opportunity to bounce ideas off others.

Lee’s boss sees the benefit of the program, too, and has helped arrange Lee’s schedule so he can take classes at Normandale.

Hassan is grateful for the help navigating college.

“My first time I tried college, I was all over the place,” Hassan says. Higher education, he adds, is “a hard place to navigate.”

He says the mentorship also has been a big benefit of Sirtify. He has a lot to juggle with a job and a family – including a new baby – at home. He’s talked with his mentor about finding balance.

The program has evolved as lessons have been learned. Besides getting a name-change, the credit requirement for non-traditional students like Lee and Hassan also has been lowered from 12 hours a semester to nine hours.

“It takes so much pressure off,” Kilgore says.

Kilgore is excited to see Sirtify help “close the representation gap,” and hopes the program model is adopted and adapted far and wide. He encourages people to reach out to him about the program.

“If other institutions get on board, we can revolutionize the face of public education,” he says.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.