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Simmons College of Kentucky President Kevin Cosby speaks during a July 8, 2019, news conference announcing a partnership between JCPS and the historically black college to recruit more minority teachers.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools and Simmons College formally unveiled an initiative Monday that both sides hope will lead to a more diverse teaching staff for Kentucky’s largest school district.

Simmons College, a historically black college, will begin offering a “transition to teaching” course this fall. College graduates and Simmons students can apply for the one-year initiative, and students will get instruction on best teaching practices, mentoring, support in passing Kentucky’s teaching certification exam and a spot in a teacher residency program being developed by JCPS.

“You will experience authentic, clinical experiences with real kids in real schools, where you will be engaging to contribute to their educational success,” said Sharon Porter Robinson, a former president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education and a former assistant U.S. education secretary under President Bill Clinton.

ETS, the company that developed the Praxis certification exam, is also offering waivers for participants on testing and retesting, Robinson said.

JCPS will cover the cost of a retired district administrator to assist with the program, which will be the only expense for the district, JCPS Communications Director Renee Murphy said.

The initiative is meant to establish a pipeline of minority educators for the district’s teaching ranks. JCPS and Simmons formalized their partnership in a resolution passed by the Jefferson County Board of Education in January.

Kevin Cosby, president of Simmons, said the agreement between JCPS and the historically black school harks back to its founding as a teaching college.

“All kids need to see black faces teaching,” Cosby said during a news conference Monday.

He told WDRB News afterward that the number of spots available in the transition to teaching course had not been determined yet.

The initiative has already generated interest from Simmons students like Joshua Keene, a sophomore sociology major. Keene is coaching basketball at Shelby County High School, and he’s leaning toward becoming a physical education teacher once he earns his degree.

Keene, who grew up in west Louisville, paused for a moment when asked how many black men he remembered having as teachers when he was a student.

“I may have had one or two,” he said.

The significance of the concerted push by JCPS and Simmons to recruit more minorities in the classroom isn’t lost on him. More male teachers of color, he said, “could really make a difference in our society.”

“I’ll be able to step in and really help out,” Keene said. “That’s what it’s about.”

Hiring more minority teachers is an integral part of the district’s racial equity plan, which also passed in January. The plan, based off a racial equity policy passed ahead of the 2018-19 school year, calls for JCPS to hire 128 more teachers of color, a 2% increase, by 2020.

As of May 24, JCPS had hired 151 minority teachers for the 2018-19 school year, up from 132 the prior school year, according to materials to be presented at a board work session July 16. The latest figures are more than twice the 77 minority teachers hired in the 2012-13 school year.

If JCPS achieves the goal of hiring 2% more teachers of color by 2020, minorities will make up 18% of its teaching staff. Students of color make up 56% of the district’s student population, and black students alone count for 36%.

JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio and others said research has shown that black and minority students perform better academically when they have “at least one teacher that looks like them.”

“We have to take some systemic approaches to this, and all we’ve done in the past, quite frankly, is hope that we get more candidates,”Pollio said. “We’ve hoped that more come out of universities, and we’ve hoped that we are the district that they choose to come teach for, and we all know hope is not a good strategy.”

Simmons is also working to establish an accredited education school. Cosby guessed that that endeavor could take three to four years to complete, noting that the school enlisted Robinson to spearhead the project.

He added that historically black schools like Simmons educate about half of the black teaching and school workforce across the country.

“You’ve got the competency to make it happen,” Cosby said. “The only question is this: Will the city of Louisville get behind this initiative? Will volunteers come out? Will former teachers come out and help mentor other teachers? Will foundations and people who have resources invest in Louisville’s and the state of Kentucky’s only private historically black college and university?”

Simmons’s transition to teaching course isn’t the only method the district is exploring to boost its recruitment of minority teachers. The Jefferson County Board of Education will discuss establishing a new teacher residency program at its work session next week in hopes of developing a more diverse pool of prospective educators.

Retention is also central to the district’s goal of hiring a teaching staff that better represents student demographics. The district wants to lower the attrition rate of teachers of color to 10% by 2020 as part of its racial equity plan, which would be down 6% from 2018.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Wayne Lewis said recruiting and retaining minority teachers starts with providing a quality education to students of color.

“What we have is a pipeline issue,” he said. “There are not enough teachers for Jefferson County to be able to hire if we’re not getting kids successfully through the system. It’s all connected.”

Classrooms aren’t the only areas where JCPS wants to boost its numbers of minority employees.

The district wants to increase the number of minorities hired as school administrators by 5% by 2020, meaning an addition of 31 administrators of color, according to the JCPS racial equity plan.

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