Seattle’s Academy for Rising Educators aims to fill a critical classroom need

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This article was written by Jenn Smith within the Seattle Times, Education Lab on February 15, 2022

Students have likely had someone at the head of their classroom this year who’s not their assigned teacher, the result of ongoing staff shortages in schools in Washington and across the country. 

The impact of teacher absences on student achievement is still being studied, but MacKenzie Tinsley doesn’t need data to know how kids are being affected. She can see the worry on their faces. 

She’s teaching an eighth grade humanities class at Washington Middle School as an emergency certificated educator. In the evenings, she takes classes three nights a week at North Seattle College to earn her teaching credentials through the Academy of Rising Educators. The program trains and guarantees teaching placement in Seattle Public Schools, with an emphasis on attracting and supporting educators of color. 

“Will you be here till the end of the year?” Tinsley said a student asked her when she began her classroom role this year. She is the student’s second teacher for the same class.  

“The look on this student’s face was very troubled, and I was able to tell that student yes I will be here,” she said. “The sense of relief that that student had … it was reassuring, you could tell.”

About 60 of the substitute staff hired last month came from ARE or other similar programs the district offers, said Noel Treat, assistant superintendent of human resources. 

“It’s great because they’re committed educators and this is the profession they are going into long-term,” Treat said. “This is a nice opportunity to join us a little bit earlier than they might’ve and get some real on-the-ground experience that’s above and beyond what they would get through their student teaching.”

The academy has been enrolling since 2019 and currently has 256 students. The majority of students — 113 — are Black, followed by 38 who are Asian or Pacific Islander, 37 candidates who identify as Latinx and 68 who identify in other racial groups. 

The program’s founders include Seattle Schools’ Chief Academic Officer Keisha Scarlett; former Seattle Central College President Sheila Edwards Lange, who is the chancellor for the University of Washington in Tacoma, and Dwane Chappelle, Seattle’s director of education and early learning. Interim Superintendent Brent Jones also endorsed the program, which launched while he was serving as the district’s chief equity, partnerships and engagement officer. 

Once targeted at recruiting high school students, the program is now open to anyone of any age; however, funds to cover full tuition costs are limited. The program is funded through the Families, Education, Preschool and Promise levy, with additional support from the University of Washington College of Education and Seattle Education Association. There’s currently a waitlist for the fourth full-tuition program cohort that will start this summer. 

Kenderick “K.O.” Wilson is the ARE program manager for Seattle Schools. Candidates often call him the “glue” of the program, and he’s proud of the 94% retention rate. He helps students navigate the multiple entry points into the program depending on their level of educational attainment, from high school up to educators or community members who have a bachelor’s degree or higher but need a teaching certification.

ARE candidates have options to study with Seattle Central College, North Seattle College, City University of Seattle, Central Washington University and the University of Washington. 

Tinsley has been working with Seattle-area youth for several years, including as a youth mentor through My Brother’s Keeper; a tutor at Leschi Elementary and her own Brainy Babe Tutoring services; and various roles at Mercer International Middle and Maple Elementary. 

While at Mercer, Tinsley said principals Chris Carter and Cindy Watters encouraged her to apply to ARE. Tinsley resisted at first, unsure of whether she wanted to be a full-time teacher.

She’s since accepted it as “a calling” and dreams of leading her own resource room to support students. She’s on track to graduate with a bachelor of applied science degree from North Seattle College en route to the University of Washington-Seattle Secondary Teacher Education Program. The accelerated program will help her earn her master’s degree in teaching with an endorsement in math.  

Tinsley, who is 25, says her students like having a younger teacher and knowing that she’s working in the neighborhood where she grew up. 

“I don’t have any kids myself, but I say that my students are my kids,” said Tinsley. It’s important, she said, to make sure “that they have that consistency in these environments that are structured to help them grow.” 

Like Tinsley, Sophath Keith has come full-circle, now working at his alma mater, Chief Sealth High School. He started his career outside of the education field, but followed his interests in youth sports coaching and tutoring. 

He started working in schools, like many ARE candidates, as an “IA,” an instructional assistant or paraeducator. Since joining ARE, he’s gone from being a sub at Chief Sealth to managing students’ individualized education plans and co-teaching communications, English language arts and history classes. He’s slated to graduate from the UW in a few weeks with a master’s degree in special education with a reading endorsement.

He said the ARE program has helped him apply his social-emotional learning training to assist kids and families who are in dire need of support right now, and in furthering his own education. Keith said ARE emphasizes channeling grads into special education fields, where there is a strong need to fill positions. But, he said, just as students of color are learning at different levels, educators of color should also be trained and hired across different roles, from paraeducators to administrators. 

“We do have a lot of talent and sometimes I think people don’t recognize their own talents,” he said, adding that the program could benefit from having students like him share their experiences and stories. 

Another ARE student, Talan Bulale, agrees that more should be done to raise aspirations for both educators and students of color. 

This is Bulale’s first year of teaching math at Cleveland STEM High School. This spring, he’s on track to graduate from City University with certifications to teach math and work with English language learners. He has a degree in chemical engineering, but began working as a substitute paraeducator and bilingual educator when he saw students “who looked like me and came from the same background” struggling in school.

Bulale grew up and studied in Ethiopia. He came to Tacoma as a senior in high school. Because he speaks several languages, including common East African dialects, he says he can relate better to students from similar backgrounds who find themselves misunderstood by educators who don’t understand their language, culture or family dynamics. 

“I wanted to impact them in a positive way and show them no matter what difficult life you had before, you can persevere,” he said.  

Wilson said he’d like to see the state designate more funds to ARE in two ways: to help hire more coordinators like him to grow the model in more Washington districts, and to help cover the cost of tuition for more educator candidates. 

Many educators of color say they grew up not having many teachers of color themselves. Bulale said having encouragement and support while leading a classroom, no matter your race, ethnicity or accent, empowers teachers-in-training to be better role models and supporters of their students. 

“Where the incentives are higher, you’re taking away those barriers for people,” he said. “If there are barriers, there is always going to be less people participating.”

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. The Seattle Foundation serves as fiscal sponsor for Education Lab, which is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Amazon, Comcast Washington and City University of Seattle. Learn more about Ed Lab