One in five of public school students in Kansas are Hispanic, according to the Kansas State Department of Education. But only about 2.5% of the educators in the agency’s teacher licensure database during the 2019-20 school year identified as Hispanic or Latino. Educators have long understood that Black and brown students are more likely to succeed in school if they have adult role models who look like them in the classrooms. Districts in the Kansas City area and beyond are trying to address the challenge, but getting more Latino teachers into classrooms is going to require hard, sustained work.

The teenager was headed for trouble, and his mother knew it. He was struggling in school, absent at home and making poor decisions.

The mother speaks mostly Spanish. The only person she could think of to confide in was her son’s homeroom teacher at Washington High School in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools.

Teacher Alicia Rodriguez-Montanez, a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, spent hours talking with the mom and working with the student. Her connection with the family lasted three years.

“It took us all the way to the beginning of his senior year before I finally realized what I’d done as a team with his mom had worked,” she says. The student, once a dropout risk, graduated from high school last spring with a community college certificate to work as a mechanic. 

As Rodriguez-Montanez begins her fourth year as a teacher, her story illustrates why the presence of Latino teachers in Kansas classrooms is essential. It also gives a sense of the extra workload that falls on Latino and Spanish-speaking teachers. And it helps to explain why the teachers who can best connect with Kansas’ growing population of Latino students often leave the profession sooner than colleagues who are white.

“It’s really, really fulfilling,” says Rodriguez-Montanez, who this year is teaching first-year Spanish and a Spanish heritage class and working with the Latinos of Tomorrow club. Besides all of that, she knows she’ll be fielding phone calls from parents desperate to talk to someone in their native language about their kids and the bewildering business of education in America.

“I’m like their source of information about the school,” says Rodriquez-Montanez, who is one of three Spanish-speaking teachers at Washington High School. 

“I do sometimes get exhausted and tired,” she adds.

The Search for Teachers of Color

Educators have long understood that Black and brown students are more likely to succeed in school if they have adult role models who look like them in the classrooms. 

A recent report commissioned by the Latinx Education Collaborative about teachers of color in the Kansas City region summed up some of the research: 

“When students of color are taught by teachers of color, their math and reading scores are more likely to improve. They are more likely to graduate from high school and aspire to go to college. Students of color and white students are more likely to have positive perceptions of their teachers of color, including feeling cared for and academically challenged.”

But teachers who are Black, Latino and representative of other minority student groups are in short supply. In Kansas, where one in five public school students are Hispanic – the classification used by the Kansas State Department of Education – the task of finding Latino teachers and keeping them in classrooms poses a leadership challenge for schools and communities. 

Only about 2.5% of educators in the agency’s teacher licensure database for the 2019-20 school year identified as Hispanic or Latino, according to information the department provided to The Journal.

A school staffing survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, with data from the 2011- 2012 school year, put the representation of Hispanic teachers in Kansas even lower – at 1.6%.

In much of Kansas, the goal of hiring Latino teachers is overshadowed by the more pressing task of finding teachers – period.

Consider the Garden City Public Schools, where 70% of students are Hispanic. The district recruits far and wide to get certified teachers in front of its 7,400 students. Only 16% of them currently are Latino.

“Our main goal is to provide quality teachers for all of the students in our district,” says Roy Cessna, the district’s public information coordinator. “We’re recruiting any and all teachers.”

A sharper focus on recruiting and retaining Latino teachers is taking shape in the Kansas City area, in part because of the work of the Latinx Education Collaborative, a new nonprofit that uses a gender neutral alternative to Latino and Latina in its name.

“We understand that diversity in education is a huge issue at large,” says Edgar Palacios, the organization’s president and CEO. “We focus on the specific issues related to the Latinx community and why it is that we don’t see as many teachers from our community as we would like in these spaces.”

By teaming up with researchers from the Urban Education Research Center, based at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, the collaborative generated a “landscape analysis” of the representation of teachers of color in schools in the greater Kansas City region on both sides of the state line. 

The research showed that, in 2018, nearly 40% of students in the region were students of color. But educators of color made up only 7% of the teaching ranks.

The gap between Latino students and teachers was especially pronounced. In the five Kansas counties closest to Kansas City – Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami and Wyandotte – 19% of students were Latino, but the percentage of Latino teachers was only 0.5%. The report notes that a third of schools in the Kansas City region don’t employ a single teacher of color.

In the Kansas counties, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools in Wyandotte County have the highest Latino teacher representation – about 9%.  “I think where the push and pull comes in is that 51% of our students are Latino,” says Stephen Linkous, the superintendent’s chief of staff and a board member of the collaborative.

  • Jackie Madrigal portrait
    Over the course of Jackie Madrigal’s 15 years at Shawnee Mission North, she’s designed one of her own classes, U.S. Latino Literature; collected 600 books for a Latino Literature Library; and helped start the school’s Familia First program for Spanish-speaking parents. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
The Path to Teaching is a ‘Tricky One’

Getting more Latino teachers into classrooms is going to require hard, sustained work.

A second report by the collaborative and the Urban Education Research Center looked at how many students of color are enrolled in teacher preparation programs.

“Neither Kansas nor Missouri is making much headway in recruiting more Latinx or Black/African American students,” researchers concluded. Overall, Kansas’ teacher preparation pipeline saw only a 1.1% increase between 2014 and 2018. The enrollment of Latino students increased by 1.3% during that period. In 2018, only about 280 aspiring Latino teachers were enrolled in Kansas preparatory programs. That’s just 5% of the total enrollment of 5,442 students.

The shortage doesn’t result from a lack of interest or love of education, Palacios says. But for many Latino students, especially recent immigrants, the path to teaching is long and difficult.

After graduating from a Catholic high school in Kansas City, Kansas, Rodriguez-Montanez earned an associate degree from Donnelly College, a private college in KCK that focuses on underserved students.

She is her parents’ oldest child and the first in her family to go to college. 

“As Latinos, we’re very close to the family and we have a lot of responsibility,” Rodriguez-Montanez says. “My parents didn’t expect me to leave the house until I was married.”

She says she was expected to clean and do chores around the home, and be present when family members dropped by. 

“They didn’t really know exactly what was expected of me in college,” she says. “I feel like they thought it was like high school, when I was not that busy, and it was not.”

Rodriguez-Montanez moved on to the University of Missouri-Kansas City to complete her bachelor’s degree. While she still lived at her parents’ home, she wasn’t there much.

“The library became my home,” she says. “I would take my lunch. I would stay there until 9 or 10 at night doing assignments. That was the only way I was able to manage my homework and my family.”

Family responsibilities and financial considerations discourage many Latino high school graduates from looking at teaching programs at Kansas colleges and universities, says Linkous, the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools administrator.

To overcome that reluctance, his district has entered into a partnership with Kansas City Kansas Community College and Kansas State University. Students in the K-Step Up program earn their general credits at the community college and advance to K-State, where they can complete their education credits online and student teach in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools. About 50 students are currently participating, the district said.

The district has its eye out for aspiring teachers of all ages and backgrounds, says recruiter Cynthia Fulk.

“We really do look at grow-your-own programs,” she says. 

One source of potential teachers is paraprofessionals and support staffers who currently work in the district. Another is immigrant parents who may have been teachers in their country of origin. A third is military veterans who may want to use their educational benefits to earn teaching degrees. 

If someone is interested in a teaching career, the district will make staffers available to talk to them and even offer substitute teaching positions and part-time jobs, Fulk says.

In preparation for another year of teaching at Washington High School in Kansas City, Kansas, Alicia Rodriguez-Montanez unfurled and hung flags from Latino countries in her classroom. Rodriguez-Montanez’s formal duties include teaching Spanish and a Spanish heritage class and working with the Latinos of Tomorrow club. Informally, she’s a well-known contact for Spanish-speaking parents. (Photo by Jeff Tuttle)
‘Fighting for the Future Today’

But while these programs might help individual districts to some degree, they’re unlikely to move the needle on the broader problem. Many districts have grow-your-own programs, Palacios says. “They’re inconsistent,” he says. “It’s based on the building. It’s based on the program.” 

Olathe Public Schools in Johnson County, where 20% of students are Hispanic, had no Latino teachers in its classrooms when surveyed recently by the Urban Education Research Center.

“We have tons of students who have graduated from our district and want to go into education, but the path sometimes is a tricky one,” says Erik Erazo, executive director of diversity and engagement. “Not everyone understands college and understands the system. The highest barrier is just understanding the process.

The Olathe district is looking at its staff of paraprofessionals, many of whom are Latino, as prospective teachers, Erazo says. A recently hired staffer is helping “paras” with the college enrollment process. Two former paraprofessionals recently obtained degrees and are working in the district’s migrant program. Another is a certified teacher and is working in a nearby district.

“We hardly have any (Latino teaching candidates) to pick from. That’s true,” Erazo says. “However, we can’t just fold our hands and say there’s nothing we can do. We have to work with our kids while they’re still in K-12, encouraging our kids who are interested in education.”

Palacios says he hears a lot of school officials bemoan the shortage of Latino teachers and say, “We’re doing all we can.”

He looks for district administrations who are willing to make teacher diversity a pillar of their strategic plans, and make staff resources and money available to gain results.

“I don’t disagree that there are great challenges in hiring certified teachers who are ready to go into the classrooms,” Palacios says. “The issue is really, ‘Who is taking the lead to make sure this isn’t an issue one day? We’re fighting for the future today, and that makes people uncomfortable.’”

What do Teachers Need?

Once a Latino college graduate becomes a certified teacher and lands a job, another leadership challenge emerges – keeping good teachers in classrooms.

School districts in Kansas and many other states don’t consider race and ethnicity when calculating teacher retention rates. But national studies have noticed alarming attrition among Latino and Black teachers. 

“Yes, Latino teachers are the fastest growing population entering the teaching profession,” the Education Trust, which advocates for equity in education, asserted in a 2018 report. “But they (along with Black teachers) are exiting the profession at higher rates than other teachers.”

Susana Elizarraraz, vice president of educator supports for the Latinx Education Collaborative, hears from teachers who have left the classroom or are thinking about it. She understands their angst. After five years, she walked away from a job she loved – teaching in a Kansas City, Missouri, elementary school with a substantial Latino student population.

“I think leaders really need to start asking the question – on top of how to find people – how do we keep them,” she says. “Because when we’re hearing from Latino teachers or from teachers in general, how much they’re struggling, how overworked they are, how burnt out they are, it’s no wonder that people take a pass on being teachers.”

Elizarraraz was for much of the time the only Latina and the only teacher who spoke Spanish in her building. It fell to her to translate for Spanish-speaking students and their families.

“I was very much willing to do it,” she says. “But there’s no denying that there’s an extra workload.”

In Mexico, her family’s native country, schools are the hub of a neighborhood, Elizarraraz says. “It’s where you go to get resources. It’s where you go to ask questions. But the way we treat education now, it feels that schools are separate from the communities they’re in.”

Elizarraraz, who grew up in the neighborhood where she taught, tried to be that resource, despite what she perceived as an implicit disapproval from her school’s leadership.

“I was staying after school and helping families fill out food stamp applications,” she says. “I was helping students apply for middle schools. In some instances, when I sought support, I was told that that wasn’t my job.”

Schools are unusually insular workplaces. Teachers rarely leave their buildings to grab lunch, meet with clients or sneak in a personal errand. In such an environment, even minor slights and criticisms from colleagues can seem harmful. Elizarraraz longed for the perspective of another Latino teacher.

In her current job, she talks to teachers all the time. Part of the role of the collaborative is to act as a resource and convenor for Latino teachers. 

“I get phone calls in the afternoon after some of our teachers have had a rough day,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘This happened at my school today. The LEC should do a program on this.’ A big part of my job is keeping my ear to the ground to say, ‘What do teachers need?’”

She suggests that leaders in school buildings and school districts take the same approach.

“Let’s give ownership to the teachers who are teachers of color and give them agency to legitimately be the experts,” Elizarraraz says. “I think there’s this pressure on administrators and on policymakers to know everything. And if you don’t know what it’s like to be a teacher of color, you just don’t touch it. Give the space for us to talk. Give the space for us to come in and relate.”

To Retain Teachers, Schools Must Support Students

Jackie Madrigal, a Latina teacher at Shawnee Mission North High School in Overland Park, has learned after 15 years in the classroom that it takes courage and persistence to advocate for Hispanic students and families. 

Along with classes for English language learners, Madrigal teaches a class she designed herself – U.S. Latino literature. It tells the history of America’s diverse Latino communities through the voices of Latino writers and their subjects. She’s collected 600 books for a Latino Literature Library. And she helped start Shawnee Mission North’s Familia First program for Spanish-speaking parents.

None of her achievements came easily. 

“I get support here at the school because I’ve been in the same building for 15 years, and they know I’m not going anywhere,” Madrigal says. But she’s been rebuffed by her district’s administration and school board. It took years to get her U.S. Latino literature class approved as an English language arts credit.

Madrigal’s dream is that someone from her district’s top ranks will reach out to her and other teachers of color and ask what they need. 

“You know, we can’t just keep spinning our wheels and hoping that the district buys into this and says, ‘Hey, let’s support your program. How much money do you need? Let’s hire someone who will plan all this for you, who is bilingual, who is bicultural, who understands this community,’” she says. “That is not happening. And that’s exactly what every single district needs.”

One of the best ways school districts can recruit and retain Latino teachers is to openly and genuinely support Latino students and families, Madrigal says. That way teachers won’t feel burdened to bear the load themselves.

“It’s not just the Shawnee Mission School District.

Every district is not reaching these populations that are marginalized,” Madrigal says. 

“They’re just doing business as usual, and it’s not working.” 

In her classroom in Washington High School, Rodriguez-Montanez talks to her students often about persistence. A sign on her computer reads “echale ganas.” It’s a phrase that Mexicans use to say “give your all always,” she says.

Rodriguez-Montanez sometimes has to repeat the motto to herself. At the end of the 2019-20 pandemic school year, she was burned out and wondering if a teaching career was her best long-range plan.

Then she received a letter from the mother of that student she supported through his rough patch. “She wrote me this really nice message,” Rodriguez-Montanez says. “Those kinds of things are the ones that push you, that tell you what you are doing is worth it.”

Discussion Guide
  1. What factors do you see contributing to Latino teachers being underrepresented in Kansas classrooms?
  2. Which of those factors are ones that could be addressed through the exercise of leadership?
  3. What tough interpretations might need to be considered for Kansas school districts to hire and keep Latino educators?
Cover of Journal about Father Kapaun

A version of this article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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