Educators Lead Minority Students Into Teaching

Program prepares college students for graduate school and rewarding careers


Cleo Syph knows what it's like to be a young black male attending schools where all the teachers are white and a majority are women. As a boy in Toledo, Ohio, he had to wait until seventh grade for a male teacher. And not until he entered the University of Dayton three years ago did he ever have a black teacher.

That lack of minority role models in education, combined with his love of learning, shaped Mr. Syph's decision to become a teacher. And it brought him to Phillips Academy here this month for a four-week academic ''boot camp'' that prepares 30 top-ranking minority college students for graduate school and teaching careers.

''I had one teacher who turned my life around,'' says Syph, a college senior. ''If he could do that for me, I'd like to do the same for somebody else.''

That goal will become more important as minority students increase. Only 8 percent of public school teachers are black and 3 percent are Latino, according to the Department of Education. By the end of the decade, minorities will account for 40 percent of American students but only 13 percent of teachers, says Kelly Wise, director of the Institute for Recruitment of Teachers and founder of the boot camp.

The rigorous program, started in 1990, emphasizes critical thinking and writing. It features lectures, seminars, debates, and presentations by educators, art historians, poets, cinematographers, and artists. Only 1 applicant in 8 is accepted.

The idea for a boot camp came when Mr. Wise was dean of faculty at Phillips Academy flying around the country to recruit outstanding minority instructors for the prep school. ''I realized how very shallow the pool of applicants was,'' he says. ''It seemed to me universities and schools were fighting for the same few folks.''

To increase that minority pool, he established the program with $80,000 from Phillips Academy. This year foundations and corporations have donated $660,000. Students receive air fare and a stipend. A consortium of universities recruits graduates and gives financial aid for graduate school.

On a rainy Monday morning, half the group gathered in a classroom to analyze an essay on apartheid in South Africa with faculty member Clement White, who teaches Latin American literature at the University of Rhode Island. Across campus, other students discussed an article on Puerto Rican nationalism with Rafael Perez-Torres, professor of Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

''They're fine-tuning their analytical skills,'' says Esmerita Sepulveda, Wise's assistant. ''As an undergrad, you're more likely to accept what an author is saying. In grad school, you have to be able to propose your own idea and criticize arguments.''

Tiffany Gill of Georgetown University in Washington calls the program ''empowerment learning. It's not just learning to get the facts across, but to help us come to terms with issues we'll have to deal with as people of color in graduate school.''

For Wise, a big challenge involves bringing together blacks, Latinos, and native Americans. He says, ''They learn that lots of folks have issues, and that some of the social issues cannot be fixed in a day, a month, a year.''

He must also be sure they can afford graduate school. Many are from working-class families, he says. ''They're already dragging huge loans behind them. In some cases their families are leery about graduate school, since education is so costly. They think, 'You've got your undergraduate degree, so go on and get a job.' ''

In addition, Wise and the seven other faculty members face another task, ''keeping students free of the sirens of other fields more lucrative than education. We show them by example that they can have quality lives as educators in schools and universities.''

One 1992 graduate of the boot camp, Noel Anderson of Brooklyn, N.Y., earned a master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He now teaches at Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Day School.

''I had always heard that if you go into teaching you'll live in poverty all your life,'' he says. ''That was a concern, because I came from a working-class background. But I realized I could do something I love and not be poor. Now, working with children, watching them acquire skills to lead productive lives, I've become wealthy in other ways.''

Among the 150 graduates, 75 are in PhD programs and 50 in master's programs. Another 70 have received master's degrees.

A current student, Richard Perez of Hunter College in New York, hopes to teach theater. The Andover program, he says, ''has really gotten me on track in thinking about my life choices.''

Another participant, Nicole Stanton, a senior at Brown University in Providence, R.I., says, ''I feel privileged to have gotten this far. It's made me feel even more responsibility to help other students of color like I've been helped by my professors.''

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