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Sioux Falls School District Looks for Tomorrow's Teachers in Today's Classrooms

Jackie Hendry

Sioux Falls schools are looking for teachers who can connect with students from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and they're looking in their own classrooms. This year, the district is launching the Teacher Pathway Program. It's a class to help high school students decide if a teaching career is right for them. 

Roosevelt High School English teacher Gina Benz believes in the power of stories, and she asks students to reflect on their own. For about ten minutes, they write about their time in school and about teachers who’ve inspired them. Then, Benz gives the next instructions:

“This is your opportunity with your small group to share this story, and hopefully we gain more understanding. Go ahead.”

As the students talk, it’s not hard to see why they’re in this class. Many are exploring the idea of teaching because they’ve worked with kids already. Senior Stephanie Ham says she’s worked in a daycare and thought teaching could be right for her.

“I liked to babysit a lot of kids, and I’d seen the joy. I taught some of them some things and they’re, like, so happy about it," she says. "Maybe I could do this for a job. Maybe they would love that.”

Others are here because they know the impact a great teacher can have. Senior Kuol Arop talks about taking an English Language Learning test when he was in middle school. He says he struggled towards the end of the test and wanted to give up.

“But my teacher, she wouldn’t have that," he remembers. "She kept pushing me forward. Kept on pushing me. And through that I finished the test and passed the class.”

All four of the Sioux Falls high schools will offer the new Teacher Pathway class this fall.  Gina Benz says its important that the staff begins to reflect the increasing diversity of the district’s students.

“I think 98% of our teaching staff is white, and that’s certainly not the demographics of the Sioux Falls School District. I might be a little bit off, but maybe 68% of our students are white, and 98% of our teachers," says Benz. "So we’d like to create a little more balance.”

And that imbalance is not for lack of trying. Assistant Superintendent Jamie Nold says the district actively recruits diverse candidates, but the demographics of applicants hasn’t kept pace with the student body. So the the district is trying a new tactic.

Nold says according to research, most teachers end up taking positions within 60 miles of where they’re from.

“So we have a huge resource right here," he explains. "Plus, our student body mirrors our student body, obviously, and we’re hoping to do that with our staff. And so no better place than to start right there.”

The Teacher Pathway Program is a partnership with the University of South Dakota School of Education. Donald Easton-Brooks is the Dean of the School of Ed, and he pioneered a similar program in Oregon. He explains there’s often a cultural barrier for teachers of color who come to a position from out of state.

“South Dakota’s a unique place--enjoyable, unique place. But it’s a place you have to understand," he says. "I’ve been here almost my fourth year now, and I’m getting the hang of what it means to be a South Dakotan. And sometimes you need to understand the culture to really understand how to relate to it and how impactful it can be.”

That’s another reason to look for future teachers close to home.

“One of the notions of this program is: could we get people from South Dakota, who understand the culture of South Dakota, who could be trained in education to help enhance our educational system for students of color, and at the same time to help enrich our communities?” says Easton-Brooks.

Part of that comes from training teachers how to recognize and value cultural differences without letting stereotypes create barriers. Easton-Brooks says people learn things  when they can relate to them, and students succeed when they feel valued by their teachers.

But that’s not to say the Teacher Pathway program is only for students of color.

“We’re in South Dakota, which, 80-plus percent of the population is white. So to suggest we have the population to reach all of our students of color is not a reality.”

Easton-Brooks is visiting the city’s high schools to answer students’ questions about culturally responsive classrooms - and a career in teaching.  

But he’s just one of the guest speakers students will meet through the program. Roosevelt High School’s Gina Benz says she plans to invite the district’s  business manager so students can understand the financial aspects of education. And she’ll bring in a school counselor along with a teacher who has worked extensively in Native American communities.

Teacher Pathway students also get to observe other classrooms. Students at Roosevelt High will also visit an elementary school once a week.

“They might help students by tutoring, they might actually present a lesson, or they might just sit back and observe," says Benz. "But they’re going to get to look at education and the classroom through different eyes that they’ve probably never looked at things through.”

The Teacher Pathway program has clearly resonated with students. Assistant Superintendent Jamie Nold says when they created the class, administrators hoped for a total of 40 students to enroll across the four high schools.

“Well, then lo and behold, we have 140 signed up.”

Nold says the Sioux Falls School District doesn’t yet have a demographic breakdown of this new class—that will come later, as administrators check in with teachers every few weeks. He says the district is so invested in this opportunity that they’ve made a commitment to students who take advantage of it.

“If you go into the education field, we’ll guarantee you a student teaching experience in the Sioux Falls School District if you request that.”

Plus, students have a chance to earn up to 3 college credits. At the very least, the program gives students a low risk way to immerse themselves in a potential career. Roosevelt Senior Kuol Arop knows what it’s like to have a teacher make an impact on  his life. And in fact, his dad was an English professor in South Sudan. But he says this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“Right now, you’re in high school. It’s free! You don’t wanna go to college, say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be a teacher!’ then find halfway through that you don’t wanna do it and waste all your money.”

And for teachers like Gina Benz pioneering the first year of the program, it’s a chance to make an exponential impact on the field.

“Because I’m setting a foundation for these future teachers who will have hundreds of students. And if these 46 students all have hundreds of students...that’s a cool thing to think about.”

The best part, Benz says, is she gets to share her passion with the next generation of educators.