Eric Mason, a black school bus driver, enjoys a good rapport with the students he shuttles around Savannah, Ga. Now he wants to put his early-morning banter and experiences growing up in the Southern city to work in a new way with the students - as their teacher.
Mr. Mason is enrolled in an unusual program here that gives janitors, cafeteria workers, and other noncertified school workers the opportunity to become qualified education professionals.
Begun in 1993, it is one of 43 such initiatives nationwide aimed at attracting teachers - including more minorities - to public-school positions.
"When these kids talk about surviving and making do, I can relate," says Mason. "The more you know about them, the more you can do for children."
Although 33 percent of the nation's public-school students are minorities, only 13 percent of teachers are from minority groups. In Georgia, according to the most-recent census figures, 15 percent of those working as teachers are from minority groups, while minorities are 29 percent of the population.
Catherine Moore was once a classroom aide and is now a third-grade teacher at Garrison Elementary School. Like most participants in Savannah's Pathways to Teaching program, she grew up in one of the low-income neighborhoods where her students live. "I know what these kids are going through," she says. "They may have started out the day wrong, but I'm here to see that their day gets better."
Ms. Moore is among 128 school support workers, 121 of them black, who have been recruited from the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System for the program. Recruiting male minority teachers has been a particular focus of the effort here.
TO find candidates, program director Evelyn Dandy went into the schools themselves. Dedicated workers already committed to serving children in Savannah's inner city became the first Pathways class, going back to college so they could return to local schools as teachers.
"This is a mission for me: to create teachers for our community," says Ms. Dandy, an education professor at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.
Pathways provides about $9,000 per student to cover 80 percent of several years of tuition at Armstrong and Savannah State College. The grant funds also pay for books, typing services, and other college costs. In return, the Pathways students promise to spend at least three years teaching in local classrooms.
Pathways applicants, all college graduates, must write three essays, provide recommendations, and complete oral interviews before they are accepted into the program.
At Armstrong, students of the program maintain a 3.11 grade-point average - more than a full point above the average of the student-teacher population. Dandy credits this success to the rigorous process used to select Pathways scholars and the maturity of the candidates, who have entered teaching from other careers, are slightly older than the average new teacher, and have their eyes wide open to the problems awaiting them in the classroom.
"Pathways scholars are seasoned. They've been to the top of the mountain," says Dandy.
Still, the program is no snap. Sharonda Bradford, a former insurance saleswoman, earned her teacher certification while working as a substitute teacher and managing a family. "It was hard to juggle everything," she says. "You get discouraged sometimes."
Now a language-arts teacher at Coastal Middle School, Ms. Bradford uses her own struggles as a student to inspire her sixth-graders.
Of the 2,200 students enrolled in Pathways programs nationwide, 52 percent are African-American and 90 percent have stayed with the program.