Bringing diversity to Utah classrooms through the Teacher Recruitment Scholarship Program

Story and photo by LORIEN HARKER

According to a 2010 survey by the National Congress for Black Women, less than 9 percent of educators in the United States are African-American.

The Teacher Recruitment Scholarship Program is looking to raise the percentage of diverse educators in Utah.

The TRS is a scholarship for those of an ethnic background who are majoring in early education. The scholarship is available through the University of Utah, Salt Lake Community College, and the Granite, Jordan, Salt Lake, and Davis school districts. According to the Salt Lake Community College Financial Aid website, the scholarship “is designed to increase the number of culturally and ethnically diverse students accessing higher education and completing teaching preparation programs.”

Fennel and I in Park City.

Fennel and reporter Lorien Harker enjoying the fresh air in Park City, Utah.

The scholarship offers compensation for tuition costs for a full two years and $500 a semester for books. Kailie Fennel, a prospective 2014 University of Utah student currently majoring in early elementary education at SLCC, is a recipient of the TRS.

She says in a phone interview that having a diverse field of educators would help students broaden their thinking process, as well as become more exposed to people of different ethnic backgrounds. Fennel says through students becoming more acclimated to different races, they can avoid awkward situations like she had in a middle school history class.

“In middle school, a teacher asked me if it was OK to talk about slavery. They made it a big deal,” Kailie says.

She also says she has yet to have an African-American educator.

“I’ve never had a black teacher,” she says. “I was looking up statistics on something and found there were only 8 percent black people in Salt Lake.”

According to the Utah census in 2010, the African-American population in Salt Lake was 2.7 percent.

Kailie says if there were more ethnic teachers, it would prevent awkward situations for students from happening, and students need to be exposed to culturally diverse teachers for this to happen.

Mary Burbank, the director for the Urban Institute for Teacher Education, says the goal of the TRS is to “broaden the traditional audience of teachers.”

The population of diverse students is increasing, and Burbank says the teachers need to reflect that diversity. In addition, diverse teachers would offer a “broad spectrum of contributions.”

She also says students would benefit from diverse teachers because of language differences, life histories and perspectives of the educators. Burbank says oftentimes, a single student of a particular race is often singled out in class and seen as the “token representative” to their class of that race. A field of diverse educators would “open up perspective” for students in the classroom, Burbank says.

“Any group of kids would be strengthened,” she says.

Cheryl Fennel, Kailie’s mother, said in a phone interview that she has felt the impact of the lack of diversity on her children in the community of South Jordan. Cheryl has three African-American children, one Korean child, and three white children.

“I think there can be some struggle socially,” Cheryl says. “They can’t be raised in an area like South Jordan without it affecting them.”

Cheryl says her children are “in a weird spot” because they are African-American, but raised in the predominantly white and Mormon culture of Utah. She also says she is concerned about her youngest daughter, Tara, going to school out of state. She has talked to other adoptive parents who have sent their children to college elsewhere, and they say that their children were shunned by the African-American students as well as by the white students.

However, Cheryl says compared to other children of adoptive parents in other areas surrounding South Jordan, her children have it relatively easy. Though she admits sometimes her children — her youngest son Josh in particular — relish the attention, she says education should focus more on the academics rather than diversity.

“It shouldn’t be about color,” Cheryl says. “I wish the issue would just go away and Kailie could just be a person.”

As far as Kailie’s awkward situation, her mother says to “handle it with a giggle,” because you can’t force complete acceptance of diversity into a class that is inexperienced with diverse students.

Kailie says she wants to be an educator her students can talk to about their personal lives and academic concerns.

“I hope to teach not only core curriculum but to give students a way to be themselves and be proud of it,” Kailie says. “I feel like there’s something to learn from everyone, whether it’s from a student, a peer, or a co-worker.”

Kailie says she knew she wanted to be a teacher when she helped her older sister grade papers for her elementary school class.

“I got to sit with this girl who had dwarfism. She was a first grader and she was probably shorter than my nephew, who is 2,” she says. “I had the opportunity to read with her during their recess as she couldn’t go outside because of medical problems. I would help her sound out each word and help with the ones that she didn’t know. Anyway, it’s satisfying to see that your service helps out someone else. It was a growing love for teaching that started with helping out my sister but was solidified when I got to teach a group of primary children.”

Kailie’s sister, Shaunna Page, was a teacher in Payson for the Nebo School District. Besides her sister, Kailie has an aunt who teaches children with disabilities. A grandmother and cousin are also educators.

“Seeing children learn is such a reward to me,” Kailie says, “probably more than anyone else.”