A sixth-grader and a student in the Institute for Urban Education number off to create teams at a Baseball Trivia event sponsored by the institute and Urban Youth Academy. The institute, part of the education school at UMKC, trains teachers to work in local urban districts.
A sixth-grader, David, and a student in the Institute for Urban Education, Kaylene Vickers, number off to create teams at a Baseball Trivia event sponsored by the institute and Urban Youth Academy. The institute, part of the education school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, trains teachers to work in local urban districts and has a track record of graduating and retaining teachers of color. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

As a new middle school math teacher at Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools, Sara Saunders missed out on a milestone experience. 

“I’ve never been cussed out by a parent before,” she said. “First-time teachers, that’s like a thing that they always get cussed out.” 

Saunders was able to have good relationships with parents thanks to her training at the Institute for Urban Education, a University of Missouri-Kansas City program that prepares teachers to work in several Kansas City districts. 

The institute taught Saunders to “sandwich” concerns about students between positive feedback rather than unleashing a barrage of complaints. “No parent wants to hear that,” she said. 

Saunders also learned a social justice approach to education, built relationships with students and families, and knew how to work through issues while keeping kids in the classroom. 

A first-generation college student and graduate of KCKPS, Saunders taught at Arrowhead Middle School for eight years. 

Now, as a field instructor and pathway programs specialist for the institute, she is recruiting and educating future teachers so they, too, are prepared and committed to work in urban districts. 

So far, the institute has a track record of success. Graduates of color and students from urban areas have a 100% five-year retention rate once they start working as teachers. 

“We’re really excited that if we can continue to bring more students up through ‘grow your own’ and particularly students that live (in) and are already committed to the community, that we can really start having a long-term solution to a long-term issue … teacher turnover,” said Jennifer Waddell, director of the institute. 

Institute believes in students’ ‘social capital’

When the Institute for Urban Education was created in 2005, UMKC’s School of Education was mostly training suburban students to teach in suburban schools, Waddell said. 

The institute, which supplements UMKC’s education program, helped the university connect with nearby urban school districts. It currently works with Kansas City Public Schools; Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools; Center School District; and local charter schools. 

Students who join the institute receive a scholarship, usually between $5,000 and $15,000 per year, Waddell said. Most of the scholarships are need-based, and they can be combined with other aid. The estimated cost of attendance for Missouri or Kansas residents at UMKC is about $27,000 per year, or about $17,500 for students who don’t pay for housing. 

In exchange for the scholarship, students commit to teach at a partner district for at least four years after they graduate.

Waddell said the program is open to all, but it is especially meant for students from historically marginalized or underserved populations, including students from urban areas, students of color, immigrants, first-generation college students and those eligible for Federal Pell Grants.

Those students “often have a lot more social capital that can contribute to them being extremely effective in urban schools,” she said.  

The institute also hosts “grow your own teacher” programs with its partner districts, helping interested students with college preparation and high school course work that introduces them to teaching as a way to promote social justice. 

About 51% of the program’s graduates are people of color, according to the program website. 

That’s important because the metro area lacks teachers of color, whose presence benefits students of color.

According to a landscape analysis published by the Latinx Education Collaborative in February 2021, only 1% of public school teachers in the Kansas City metro area are Latinx. The percentage of Black teachers also lags behind the percentage of Black students. 

“Research demonstrates that a student of color who identifies as Black or African American that has a black teacher is 13% more likely to go to college,” Waddell said. “They’re 33% more likely to go to college if they have two.” 

Overall, the institute has a 100% placement rate and a 90% five-year retention rate, well above the Missouri and national averages. 

Waddell said the program, which historically graduated about 10-12 students annually, has increased to about 15 students per graduating class in recent years. It is aiming to graduate 25-35 teachers each year by 2025.

Eventually, Waddell would like to send hundreds of graduates every year into communities.

Research from a few years ago determined it would take at least 300 new teachers per year to eliminate shortages in partner districts, Waddell said. She estimates the entire metro area would need at least 1,000 per year. 

“We knew (the teacher shortage) was coming about 10 years ago,” Waddell said. The COVID-19 pandemic “expedited it and made it … much worse than we expected. So I really feel that we’re at a point right now of a societal crisis, and we need to have all levels of community come together.”

The main barrier to expanding the Institute for Urban Education, Waddell said, is funding for scholarships and program costs. The program is seeking donations

Institute builds on UMKC education degree with additional hands-on experience

Waddell said the program is successful in part because it intentionally seeks students who are committed to teaching in urban schools and see themselves as part of the solution to a societal issue without having an unhealthy “savior mentality.” 

The program supplements the normal UMKC education degree with additional opportunities, such as an extra semester of student teaching. 

Anabel Vargas, a graduate of the program who has taught elementary school at KCPS for eight years, said the institute offered more hands-on learning compared to what her friends in the regular education program experienced. 

“Within the first couple semesters, we were already going to the classrooms and observing teachers and working with students at times,” she said. 

Saunders said one of the most influential experiences was a community immersion course that took her to visit places like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, a juvenile detention center and food deserts.

“The idea was to see … what (students’) lives could look like, you know, some things that they may be encountering,” she said. “And that was really eye-opening because I didn’t think about how many kids go through those different pieces.”

Bri’Yanna Miller, a freshman in the program who graduated from KCKPS, said the Institute for Education seminars she takes are already giving her “the inside scoop of what it’s going to be like to work in an urban area,” including discussions of how gender, ethnicity and religion will play a role and how to build relationships with students. 

Isaia Wilcoxen, a student in the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Institute for Urban Education (left) exchanges a high five with David, a sixth grade participant in a Baseball Trivia event, Dec. 4 in Kansas City. The event was put on by the institute and Urban Youth Academy. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

Compared to other teacher education programs, “they care more about students who basically are labeled,” Miller said. “They’ve gathered people from all different walks of life.”

The program also strives to offer support to teachers once they are placed in schools, Waddell said.

Vargas said staff members from the institute would occasionally observe her classes when she was a new teacher and give her feedback. 

Saunders said a mentor from the program supported her after her principal harshly criticized her lesson plans, and as she worked to handle a difficult class.

“She literally spent hours with me a week until I felt comfortable,” she said. 

Institute for Urban Education focuses on teaching as an ‘act of social justice’ 

Waddell said that the entire education school at UMKC has a social justice mission, but the Institute for Urban Education enhances that. 

Practicing social justice in the classroom includes believing that students from disadvantaged communities can learn and deserve the same level of rigor, Saunders said.

Teachers who aren’t prepared to work in an urban environment might send students out of the classroom for minor issues or excuse a student who has problems at home from all assignments, Saunders said. “That doesn’t help them in the long run.” 

“I feel like it has a lot to do with the support of a teacher,” said Miller, the UMKC freshman. She wants to teach first or second grade. “It’s very important that you build those connections with students and motivate them.”

Social justice in the classroom also includes incorporating current issues that are relevant to students’ lives into lesson planning and respecting all students’ identities, Saunders said. 

Vargas said the institute’s focus on honoring all identities helped her when a student came out as transgender. She was able to figure out how to accommodate his needs and ensure that he was comfortable correcting her if she said anything wrong. 

Vargas, who is originally from Mexico and has lived in Independence and Blue Springs, said she wanted her students to have an example of a Hispanic professional in their lives. 

“When I moved to the U.S., all of my teachers, until I got to college, were Caucasian,” she said.

While working in an urban district can be hard, she isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.

“My goal is always to stay,” she said. “There are certain things that are stressful about it. But I always think about the students and the parents and the relationships that I built with them. And so that always keeps me coming back.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.