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Partnership helps local K-12 district ‘Grow Your Own Teachers’


Just south of Seattle in Highline School District, the student body represents 81 nationalities and 70 different languages. It is a district of immigrants, struggling to establish a toehold in a new culture.

Many have fled terrifying ethnic or political conflicts in far-flung parts of the world and are living at poverty level – or worse. Reaching them requires a creative approach.

A new partnership between PLU, the school district and Highline Community College is helping bridge the gap.

The “Grow Your Own Teachers” program identifies adults in the Highline community who held professional degrees in their native countries and helps them navigate the complex maze of state bureaucracy and cultural nuance to become state-certified teachers.

The hope is that foreign-born adults who have faced the same challenges as many of their students will motivate the students to stay in school and remain on the road to full participation in U.S. society.

“The kids identify because they see people of their own color, and that’s the whole idea,” said Paula Leitz, associate dean of PLU’s School of Education. Leitz coordinates the “Grow Your Own Teachers” program on behalf of PLU with the help of colleagues Beth Crippen and Tony Aho, ’99.

The program begins in June each year and features classroom instruction at PLU through the summer and into the fall semester. Students in the teacher-training program still struggling with English or other basic skills supplement their PLU coursework with classes at Highline Community College.

In September, the “Grow Your Own” students enter an unpaid, one-year internship and take classes on Saturdays through the fall term. From January through the end of the school year, students continue their internships at middle and high schools in Highline School District.

The students are officially Lutes, and will hold a PLU degree upon completion of the program. Students pay

PLU tuition, though they each receive a $5,000 scholarship from the state of Washington.

School district staff oversee student work during the internship phase of the program.

Carol Gregory and Mauricio Ayon are district staffers on Highline’s Community Engagement Team. They supervise the “Grow Your Own” students’ internships.

“Our community demographics have been changing dramatically over the last 10 years,” Gregory explained. “Our superintendent at the time believed that if we didn’t get to know our community and work with them, it would be much more difficult to reach the academic levels that we were hoping for for our kids.”

Planning for the program began in the spring of 2004. The first group of “Grow Your Own” students – four total – began classes at PLU in June 2005. By June of this year, three of the four, Somalia-born Mahamud Iman, Kimani Mbuthia of Kenya and Timoa Mageo of American Samoa, will be certified teachers.

Around the same time, the next crop of “Grow Your Own” students will be starting classes at PLU.

The students must overcome significant hurdles to complete the program. State-mandated tests must be translated by the students to their native languages to ensure full comprehension of the questions. Then they translate the answers back to English.

“It’s been much more difficult for them to pass the basic skills test because all of these tests are timed,” Gregory said. “Consequently, they have to take it more times. That became a very big barrier. Costs (to take the tests) are a barrier, too, but we knew that going in.”

Sitting around a table in a wood-paneled conference room at district headquarters in April, the students lamented a $165 charge for this, a $35 licensing fee for that. The unpaid internships mean all of the students hold jobs outside the program. Several face the additional burden of supporting their families at the same time.

Challenges aside, the “Grow Your Own” team interviewed dozens of prospective students throughout the spring.

“Word is out now,” Leitz said. After interviewing several, Leitz said the personal histories of these teacher-hopefuls are some of the most compelling she’s ever heard.

Iman, a Somali who came to the U.S. on a lottery visa nine years ago, witnessed the indiscriminate killing of hapless civilians and lost his home, savings and personal belongings in a bloody civil war. He became a U.S. citizen in December.

Since arriving in the United States, he has become an avid writer, creating hundreds of essays on various subjects to help hone his English and process the confusion and depression he felt after seeing his home destroyed.

An essay titled “Why I Choose to Pursue a Career in Teaching” explained that issues of color in schools, including the gap between teacher and student-body demographics and the disproportionate way students of color are disciplined in the schools, inspire him to teach and to bond with his students.

“I personally love teaching and enjoy interacting with students, reading their essays and learning from their honesty and sincerity,” he wrote. “They inspire me and I hope to inspire them.”

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© Scene 2006  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Summer 2006

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