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Innovative program created to make Pinellas classrooms more diverse

Mark Parker



Freshmen Triston Williams (left) and Michael Wright are the first two undergraduate students to participate in USFSP's Call Me MISTER program. Photos by Mark Parker.

According to Pinellas County Schools (PCS), only 9% of the county’s teachers are Black; worse yet, only 2% of teachers are Black males – even as Black students comprise 19% of the student body.

In light of those statistics, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and PCS have partnered to implement an innovative program designed to reduce the discrepancy in the area’s teaching force.

Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) is a leadership development program for men of color interested in teaching – specifically in urban environments. Developed by Clemson University, the program is the first of its kind in Florida. Earlier this month, the first three USFSP students to enter the program formally signed a pledge to teach in urban schools in Pinellas County.

“It definitely leads to more positive outcomes for Black students by having a teacher of color in the classroom,” said Shaune Ferguson, recruiter and talent acquisition for PCS and district’s liaison to the program.

In addition to providing representation and role models during a child’s formative years, Ferguson said the data shows discipline referrals decrease, while recommendations to advanced placement classes increase – just by having a teacher of color in the classroom.

“Having at least one Black teacher reduces a student’s likelihood of dropping out of school early by 35%,” relayed Ferguson. “Black students with a Black teacher at some point in early childhood are 32% more likely to go to college.”

Ferguson added that a child’s success in school is largely dependent on how well they do in kindergarten through third grade. The Call Me MISTER program encourages its participants to fill roles in elementary and middle school, as many people go without a Black teacher until high school or college – if at all.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had teachers – and students who are going to be teachers – say that the very first time I had an African American teacher or professor was either in high school or the university,” said Dr. Brenda Walker, associate dean of education at USFSP and founder of the campus’ MISTER program.

“And that saddens me.”

Dr. Brenda Walker, associate dean of education at USFSP, was instrumental in bringing the MISTER program to the campus.

Walker noted that having Black teachers, especially Black male teachers, is beneficial to students of all races, a sentiment shared by Ferguson.

“For a white student, that means seeing a positive Black male role model in the classroom, where they may not typically see that on a daily basis,” explained Ferguson. “So just countering the narrative of what children typically see as role models and showing them there are other types of role models out there.”

Freshmen Triston Williams had only one Black male teacher growing up in Broward County and said he is a driving force behind his desire to enter the program and lead a classroom.

“He was a great influence on my life,” said Williams. “He guided me, he mentored me, and he put me on the right path; I wish I could be that for other people.”

Williams said that teacher probably never expected him to follow in his footsteps back then, but thanks to him, he is now on a fulfilling career path.

“He did a lot for my life, more than he could think,” added Williams. “Even though I wasn’t the best at expressing that, it was there.”

Ferguson recruited freshman Michael Wright from the Baltimore area. After doing some research, he realized he could make a difference in a child’s life and moved to Florida solely to participate in the program.

Wright did not have a single male or female African American teacher growing up – an experience he said played a big role in his desire to be a MISTER.

“I believe that if you see something, you can believe it,” said Wright. “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher, so that didn’t change my perspective, but I think it could’ve been helpful if I had seen that in the classroom. It could have been inspirational.

“So, I hope to be that inspiration to other students.”

The MISTER program welcomed its first three students in August, and Walker said they hope to add five more for the spring semester. They accept both undergraduate and graduate students, and students receive tuition assistance, academic support, social and cultural support throughout the community, and job placement assistance.

In exchange, students agree to work in urban elementary and middle schools in Pinellas County for every year they receive assistance. Prospective participants are recruited and must meet acceptance requirements for USF. Program leaders conduct interviews, and Walker emphasizes the importance of having a heart for teaching in urban and high-poverty schools.

Walker plans to expand the program to the Tampa campus in the near future, and ultimately to the Sarasota-Manatee campus. She said her long-term goal is to enroll 10 students from each campus into the MISTER program.

“What we’re doing is preparing our teachers to be more effective in classrooms,” stated Walker. “And to be delighted to be in urban schools.”

Walker is displeased with the negative connotations that often surround urban schools. She relayed how she is a product of urban schools, taught in urban schools and has successfully prepared others to teach in urban schools.

“Urban schools are wonderful places to be – as long as you have effective teachers in front of the classroom.”








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