LEWISTON — A walk through the halls of Lewiston Middle School would quickly show you that the student population has become much more diverse.

About 40 percent of Lewiston public school students are black or another minority, making the city’s schools among the most diverse in Maine.

Tharcila Gonselvez works in her English language learners class at Lewiston Middle School. She said hiring more nonwhite teachers is a good idea and they would be good role models.

By contrast, all but a few teachers in Lewiston are white.

“Until last year, I was the only black teacher in this school,” said Barbara Benjamin-McManus, who teaches at the middle school.

The district has wanted to hire more non-white teachers, Superintendent Bill Webster has said, but the applicants haven’t shown up.

A new effort, the Educator Diversity Initiative, is aimed at changing that. The school department is teaming up with the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College to offer a free, three-college-credit course and a summer internship to introduce people to teaching.

The course begins July 6. It’s open to anyone, but Webster hopes it will attract non-white people considering a career in education.

“Our students do best when, within the educator population, there are teachers they can relate to,” Webster said. Having more teachers whom non-white students can connect with would enhance those students’ educations, he said.

“One of our district goals is to have our staff be more reflective of the diversity of our student body,” Webster said. The new summer program is similar to one begun last year by the Portland School Department and USM to attract more non-white educators.

Lewiston has dozens of non-white substitute teachers and education technicians who may be prime candidates, Webster said.

Some of the city’s substitute teachers have teaching credentials from other countries, but those credentials haven’t yet been translated to Maine teacher certificates.

“We also have substitute teachers who haven’t thought about education as a career,” Webster said.

LEWISTON ‘A MELTING POT’

Students and teachers recently interviewed at Lewiston Middle School said they like that the School Department is trying to hire more non-white teachers and ed techs.

“I absolutely think it’s needed, provided we get qualified, efficient teachers who can reflect our diverse community,” Benjamin-McManus said.

Maine used to be the whitest state in the nation, she said. “It still is. However, Lewiston is fortunate in that our diversity is increasing. We have a lot of Somali population and students who speak Swahili, Portuguese, French — so many. It’s a melting pot.”

Social studies teacher Karla Good works with eighth-grader Tara Nash during class at Lewiston Middle School. Good said it is essential to attract more nonwhite teachers to a school district with such diversity.

Benjamin-McManus said that as one of two black teachers at the school, non-white students “that I don’t even teach migrate to me because we have a common bond.”

Because she is black, some non-white students are naturally more comfortable with her until they get the time to build relationships with other teachers.

Social studies teacher Karla Good said non-white teachers are “essential to our district. Our population is so diverse. It’s not even closely reflected in the demographics of our staff.”

CULTURAL CONNECTIONS

Students need to see people they connect with culturally in the classroom, she said, which can build trust and a sense of belonging. “They’d feel more comfortable, and ultimately learn and perform at higher levels.”

In a recent English language learners class, student Tharcila Gonselvez said having more non-white teachers was a good idea and would offer additional role models. Seeing black teachers could encourage black students to think maybe they should become teachers when they grow up, she said.

McKenzie Anderson, a white student, said a diverse faculty would help everyone, black and white.

“Each teacher has their own teaching style,” Anderson said. “If you have a teacher who’s white, a teacher who’s black, their styles will be different. You’d learn new things from each teacher.”

Sihan Bahar said she only knows one black teacher, Benjamin-McManus, but she doesn’t have her because Bahar is not in the English language learners program. “I wish I had her. She understands me as a black woman in America.”

Another student, Isho Abdullahi, and Bahar both said that with so many white teachers in the schools, some black students are quick to suspect a white teacher is a racist.

“If a white teacher talks to more white kids than black kids, (students think), ‘Oh they’re racist,'” Bahar said. A more blended faculty would diffuse that suspicion and create a better school environment, students said.

Spencer Emerson, the other black teacher at Lewiston Middle School, said that when he was a student in Lewiston public schools a decade ago, “I absolutely noticed that none of my teachers looked like me.”

“I know what it is like to be a young black person,” he said. “I hope sharing my experiences in Lewiston with them can provide some perspective they aren’t used to hearing.”

It’s important for students of color to have someone who looks like them working in schools, Emerson said. “In order for them to believe they can be teachers, counselors and administrators one day, they need to see non-white people in those roles.”

LEARN MORE

For those interested in taking the three-college-credit course at USM-LAC that introduces people to teaching, contact Lewiston School Department Director of Human Resources Carol Burnham at [email protected] The course begins July 6.

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