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Brusly High School ninth-grade English teacher Kimberly Eckert talks about her teaching and being named state teacher of the year, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017. A photo in background is from a speaking/listening project that utilized teams, which play an important role in her approach.

This fall, the West Baton Rouge Parish School District will become the first district in the state to launch a national curriculum-based program called Educators Rising, geared toward grooming the next generation of teachers. 

It's yet another effort by the state to address widespread teacher shortages and diversity concerns among Louisiana's pool of educators after launching a $100,000 recruitment campaign called "Be a Teacher LA" in February.

Educators Rising uses the same recruitment, specialized training and mentoring philosophy that's proven successful for the military and skill-based trades. It identifies high school students who want to be teachers and gets them the experience that will help them succeed in college and eventually return to their home districts to teach the next generation of young minds. 

"I think we have to start marketing this profession as, 'Don't be a teacher because you love English, be a teacher because you really want to serve your state and your country and have a direct impact,' " said Kimberly Eckert, a ninth-grade English teacher at Brusly High School. "That's what this generation wants to hear."  

Eckert was named the state's 2018 Teacher of the Year by the Louisiana Department of Education last year. And since that time, she has been using that platform to address teacher recruitment and diversity issues — specifically the lack of minority teachers in the state's majority black school districts. 

Fewer of the state's students are thinking about becoming teachers, and education officials have cited a variety of reasons for that being the case. These include low pay, the increasing amount of teacher oversight and more stringent academic standards for those seeking teaching degrees from four-year institutions. 

Education officials also believe those issues help create the racial imbalance between Louisiana's educator pool and its student population. 

Recent data from the Louisiana Department of Education show that 74 percent of the state's approximately 47,000 public school teachers are white while only 22 percent are black. But student enrollment figures as if Oct. 1, 2017, show black students make up 43 percent of the state's school population while 44 percent of students are white.

Educators Rising, a national organization for aspiring teachers, focuses on the recruitment and mentoring of minority teachers. 

According to its website, more than 43,000 students from the 27 states and regions in its network have signed up for free membership through their school programs in their respective districts. And more than half of the organization's student network is composed of students of color, the website claims.

"This helps introduce the profession in the high school realm to those who may not be getting that exposure," said Kyle Finke, executive director of the Louisiana Resource Center for Educators. 

The resource center provides training and an alternative certification program for aspiring teachers in the state. 

"Students need to see an authentic representation of what a profession might look like, or entail," Finke said in his support of Educators Rising. "I think it's incredibly important to show what the reality is. What was once a different type of profession is viewed in such a negative fashion now." 

Educators Rising offers resources and scholarship opportunities to high school students wanting to becoming teachers through either technical education courses or academic clubs.    

West Baton Rouge Parish this fall will implement both with Eckert pioneering a curriculum-based course at Brusly High and helping Port Allen High establish its EdRising club. 

There are already a few Louisiana school districts with the EdRising clubs, but Eckert says West Baton Rouge Parish is the first to implement the EdRising course-track.

Students in Eckert's inaugural class will spend their freshmen year learning the basics of the teaching profession and the role they should play in becoming the next generation of educators. 

Then, each year, they'll move on to different courses that tackle various facets of the profession. They also will be trained for the standardized testing the state requires for aspiring teachers to enter education programs at four-year universities.

"One of the things that really hurts enrollment numbers for colleges of education is students who may not have scored enough on the ACT," Eckert said. "There are students that want to be teachers but they can’t get past that initial PRAXIS so they can’t even start their education courses. That causes a lot of them to either drop out or just switch majors because they can’t get over that hurdle."

She hopes to gain buy-in from universities in the region as well that are willing to offer dual-enrollment opportunities for EdRising students while in high school.  

Eckert says 17 Brusly High students have enrolled in her EdRising pilot course, and she's getting interest from other students as she continues her recruitment efforts. 

Six of the 17 are students of color, she said.

Eckert, who is biracial, echoes previous sentiments made by education officials crusading for more diversity in teaching. Over the course of her decade in education, Eckert said, she noticed that many minority students limited their career aspirations to ones they saw themselves reflected in the most, like professional sports. 

"I just never saw myself as a teacher because I literally never saw myself as a teacher when I was a student," Eckert said. "I think it's a disservice if the first time you're led, inspired by or taught by someone of color is after you graduate high school, and I know that happens in a lot of schools."

Eckert is hoping others school districts in the state will want to join the EdRising network to increase the program's footprint across Louisiana. 

"Any school can jump on; I think what makes it difficult for some schools is to see the direct impact of the investment, which for me, being able to grow your own teachers and then having them come back and teach seems like a huge investment," she said. 


Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.