Connected to the Community

An effective model for preparing and retaining teachers

By Marianne Smith, Jan Osborn

Illustrator: Katherine Streeter

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

Editors Note: This article is another in a series of Ford Foundation-supported articles and essays focusing on retaining and nurturing teachers.

Your comments and anecdotes are welcome.
Address them to Contact Me .

Ten years ago, Acela* seemed destined for academic failure, her dream of becoming a teacher was as distant as the stars. She had swirled between three community colleges in Orange County, Calif., failing or withdrawing from courses for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of academic support to financial problems, forcing her to prioritize work over her studies.

Today, Acela is an elementary bilingual resource teacher. She graduated from Chapman University with a 3.9 GPA in her education specialist credential coursework, is nearing completion of a master’s degree, and remains committed to working with K-12 students from low-income communities of color.

Acela’s ability to become a teacher and contribute back to her community was due to Project I-Teach, an innovative program designed to help first-generation college students from low-income and immigrant communities become teachers.

The two of us, who helped develop and oversee Project I-Teach, believe the project provides enduring lessons on educating teachers committed to working in high-need schools, teachers who stay in the profession beyond that crucial five-year mark. Lessons from the project underscore the importance of believing in, and developing, the potential within ethnically and linguistically diverse communities.

Project I-Teach, funded by U.S. Department of Education grants, was run in partnership with Chapman University in Orange County from 1998 through 2008. It encompassed an emphasis on social justice teaching, a respect for the aspirations and abilities of its participants, and a comprehensive approach that included financial, educational, cultural, and personal support.

Over 130 participants, most underrepresented minorities, earned degrees and credentials. The participants reflected the diversity of the community. Almost three quarters were first-generation college graduates. Ninety-one percent were bilingual, speaking Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Farsi, Creole, Tagalog, Romanian, Indonesian, Taiwanese, Hindi, and Punjabi with the largest group (67 percent) representing the Hispanic/Latino community prominent in Orange County. Of these participants, 118 are now teachers in K-12 schools. Early data show that the professional retention rates far surpass the national average, with the earliest group of participants having remained employed in schools for an average of seven years. Not surprisingly, they hold leadership positions and serve as team leaders, department chairs, professional development leaders, members of school site and principal advisory boards, coordinators of services for English learners, mentors to newly hired teachers, and, now, as administrators.

The Origins of I-Teach

In 1996, California reduced class sizes in an attempt to improve reading and mathematics performance. One unanticipated consequence was the hiring of scores of novice teachers unprepared for the challenges of teaching, especially in low-income schools, and more likely to quickly leave the profession. The convergence of increased need, the retirement of record numbers of veteran teachers, and an inability to retain new teachers created a crisis.

The economic costs of teacher turnover are staggering, with the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2007) estimated costs to schools and districts at more than $7 billion nationally.

Costs to student achievement are not as easily quantified. What is known is that novice teachers are less effective and that high-need schools serving low-income communities of color employ a disproportionate number. With little understanding of the sociocultural context and norms of low-income schools and communities, novice teachers, as noted by University of California-Davis researcher Barbara Merino (2007), are “more vulnerable to holding negative expectations for students who are English learners, or who are from a different race or class.”

With data indicating that half of the nation’s African American and Latino children are concentrated in segregated, high-poverty schools?schools with low achievement and high drop-out rates?employing and retaining the “right” teachers is paramount.

In Orange County, a community generally associated with palm-lined boulevards, coastal mansions, and Disneyland, students of color make up the majority of the county’s public school enrollment and are segregated in low-income neighborhood schools and districts. Spanish, Vietnamese, and Cambodian are common languages in the schools, yet teachers remain predominantly monolingual and white.

Marianne, as the Second Language Program Coordinator for a suburban Orange County district, had seen these issues firsthand. She knew that many of the district’s bilingual instructional aides aspired to teach but had limited financial resources and little understanding of the world of higher education. In 1998, she jumped at the opportunity to respond to a federal grant. Collaborating with the associate dean of Chapman University’s School of Education and two other school district coordinators, the first Project I-Teach was conceived and developed. A subsequent federal grant extended and expanded the project, and during its 10 years, the program received $2.9 million in federal funds.

The goal of Project I-Teach was to develop teachers from and for immigrant and/or low-income communities who would remain in the profession, stay connected with their community, and model the potential of community members meeting the needs of their children. Simply put, students from the community would return to the community as educators.

The project intentionally looked for students who would have been overlooked by other programs, such as Teach for America. Being selected had little to do with students’ previous academic achievement. We looked for first-generation college students with specific strengths: bilingualism, understanding of the community, and a desire to be educated. Regardless of grade point averages, educational starts and stops, financial pressures, and myriad other concerns, they would not be applying if they did not want to teach; we kept this uppermost in our minds as we interviewed classified staff from local school districts and, later, students from a nearby community college.

Carol Rodgers (2006), professor of education at SUNY Albany, explains that “becoming a teacher or teacher educator committed to social change requires a fundamental shift in the way one views the world, one’s place in it, and one’s relationship to others. ?To make a difference, teachers must care from the inside out?rather than because they should?about social justice issues.” Students were selected on the basis of already being on the inside, aware of the realities their students would face. The project’s role would become one of providing an education that helped participants recognize their own and their students’ capacities to make the fundamental changes in education that could change society.

Our first priority, however, was to meet students’ very real and complex needs?academic, personal, financial?as they worked through undergraduate and, later, graduate coursework. Financial support was foremost. With few exceptions, participants were low-income and Chapman, a private university, was expensive. Therefore, most of the federal funds and in-kind contributions for Project I-Teach were allocated to tuition and fees. Expected to participate in funding their education, students continued to work part time and, where appropriate, accepted subsidized federal loans.

Scholarships, however, are only a small part of the equation when serving first-generation students. Therefore, Project I-Teach provided all textbooks and bought resource materials such as graphing calculators, tape recorders, and shared laptop computers. As we came to understand other needs that distracted students from their university work, we made as many accommodations as possible: arranging for eye exams and glasses; providing bus passes and nutrition; referring students to outside agencies for health care and counseling. Our intent was to level the playing field, providing our students with the resources that other students often take for granted.

Illustration: Katherine Streeter

Many I-Teach participants presented transcripts of early coursework that, most certainly, would prevent them from transferring to the university. Prior to being accepted in the project, Acela, for example, earned a cumulative GPA of 1.3. Helping her get back on track meant guiding her through the process of community college academic renewal and supporting her in new coursework, as well as helping her with issues such as finding affordable child care and understanding the culture of higher education. Like most first-generation community college students, I-Teach participants found catalog course explanations convoluted and the university’s bureaucratic structures incomprehensible.

The project provided a form of “intrusive advisement” that went beyond course selection. Some advisement sessions became opportunities for students to role-play, developing the confidence to approach faculty members with questions. The sessions also allowed students to discuss strategies for study groups or to rethink work schedules and personal budgets.

We didn’t wait for students to come to us with questions. Instead, we went to them, calling their homes on weekends, holding “office hours” at a vacant table on the community college campus. The I-Teach grant office became a place of centralized student services, from negotiating financial aid to academic mentoring and dealing with pressing issues in students’ lives?births, deaths, illnesses, trips across the border, documentation.

We believe that the relationships of trust and respect built during frequent advising sessions allowed students to expose their vulnerabilities, their fears, and their frustrations with higher education. This, in turn, opened the door to further support and assistance. For example, in a lunchtime conversation early in the project, students shared an ongoing concern that they had not been adequately prepared, in secondary school or at the community college, for university work:

Daisy: You know, I feel so stupid. I mean everybody in class is so smart and they use words I don’t even know. They grew up in this environment, but I didn’t.

Alondra: I know what you mean. I don’t understand half of what is said in class.

Daisy: Some words that other students use and the conversations they have with the professors ? I have to present with these people. It just so happens that I’m in a group with the smarter people.

Marianne: What do you mean by “smarter people”?

Alondra: Yeah, that is what I was going to say.

Daisy: I feel intimidated.

Information from such conversations provided a chance to reflect on what the project might offer students from community colleges who were transitioning to the university, from an environment where they were part of the ethnic/language majority to one where they were clearly the minority.

Those studying to be secondary teachers completed a degree in a content area such as Spanish, mathematics, or history. Selecting a major for our future elementary teachers became particularly important. Early cohorts were placed in liberal studies, the traditional route. We found, however, that prescribed classes, many of which were survey level, did not challenge students to move beyond traditional curriculum, tackle critical local and global issues, or delve into literature outside the Eurocentric canon. We opted instead for Peace Studies, a “problem-centered, multicultural, interdisciplinary” major that provided rigorous coursework from various fields and was taught by a multicultural faculty whose work focused on global social justice issues. Students were initially disappointed by this choice, some voicing concerns to the dean. Within a term, however, they began to appreciate the demanding content, discussing conflict in the Middle East, questioning the global political economy, or analyzing the United Nation’s agenda. Students began to look for multiple perspectives, perusing newspapers outside the mainstream; reading authors such as Brazilian Paulo Coelho and Nigerian Chinua Achebe. We supplemented major coursework with mathematics, English, art, science, linguistics, and language to ensure they entered teaching with broad knowledge.

Written assignments, in particular, posed a challenge. Often mis- or under-educated during the primary and secondary grades, our students relied on formulaic writing, believing that regurgitating what an author or professor had said would be valued. It became central to help them find their own voices, write about their experiences and worldviews, and develop confidence in their academic writing abilities. To do so, we established a writers’ workshop series and provided one-on-one support for all participants. The intent was to best support students, addressing their strengths as strengths and working through areas that hindered their written assignments. For example, Abel, a math major, did not initially pass the university writing proficiency exam and this failure became the defining point of how he saw himself as an academic writer. Working through this type of discouragement was an important workshop component and an example of the overall approach of Project I-Teach?overcoming barriers and misconceptions that could derail students from completing their degree.

The project also created our own “Themes for Study and Growth,” focusing on bilingual and bicultural students becoming critically conscious of the complexities of teaching and learning within a social structure that often dismisses diversity and focuses on a limited range of skills. Our themes?Developing a Community of Learners; Developing Knowledge and Professional Confidence Through Inquiry; and Developing Perception Through Aesthetic Education?were designed to accomplish this.

Developing a Community of Learners

Project I-Teach students frequently came to the university from the known (diverse work sites and community colleges) into the unknown (a university with little visible diversity, linguistic or ethnic). Although they had been accepted to the university, Project I-Teach students were often strangers in a foreign land. Anthropologist Yi-Fu Tan tells the story of being newly arrived in London where he was accidentally injured at the train station. After the immediate concerns of stopping the flow of blood in a public place, he recounts that people who had initially helped him “looked right through me as though I were a ghost.”

This invisibility creates a sense of isolation for many students of diverse ethnic and linguistic experience. They are out of their element, disembodied, as it were, and can disappear without notice.

I-Teach students’ immediate needs had been met?financial aid, books, parking stickers. However, once on campus, they often sensed this ghostlike invisibility. As Project I-Teach evolved, the two of us, and the students themselves, consciously strove to create a community on campus, a place where students were known and were recognized as an important part of the larger university community. Developing an I-Teach student/faculty center became essential.

When the project began, it was housed in the corner of a large storage/meeting room where students would meet with Marianne. Slowly, over a period of months, the meeting space became more defined with a table and chairs and ultimately a student-worker desk. But the sense of community only became palpable when Marianne negotiated the use of a large, relatively unused space across the hall. She created the Project I-Teach offices and student lounge with comfortable chairs, a boardroom table, computers, white board, refrigerator, and adjoining offices for the two of us. The space provided what communities need?a shared experience. Students studied here; they debriefed classes; they spoke in Spanish if they felt like it; they met with us in both scheduled meetings and in informal “let’s sit down a minute and talk” sessions. It became a safe place to have difficult conversations.

When asked to write about what they were thinking as they contemplated coming to the university for their first semester or coming back to campus for another year, the students expressed the importance of the community they had created:

  • I felt like I was being dragged by a river and… I-Teach… was the big rock I was able to hold on to.
  • I-Teach has taught me that hard work is necessary to be successful and that this phase, stage in our lives can be so much easier if you have a core group of people that one can relate to.
  • My core group… is I-Teach students.
  • The I-Teach program has helped me (and at times drove me to the edge) to finish my goal.
  • Now that I’m starting the credential program, I feel confident that I’m closer to my dream of being a teacher.

We found that clustering two or three students into course sections was also important. The presence of a colleague who shared similar experiences gave students added confidence and also allowed them to share lecture and discussion notes and generate meaning together.

Students continue to build community. For example, several students who are now teachers organized round-table discussions among their peers on topics such as standardized testing, critical pedagogy, and curriculum.

Confidence Through Inquiry

Early in the project, when a group of I-Teach participants was reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, Marianne chartered a bus so the students could hear Kozol when he spoke in Los Angeles. On the way home, the energy was palpable. The I-Teach students, many of whom were never quite sure they belonged at the university, realized they had entered the larger educational conversation; they belonged. The picture from that trip hung in the project office for years, a marker of transformation. Later, collaborating with the county human rights commission, the project brought Linda Christensen to speak with county educators. Linda acknowledged the I-Teach students, valued their perspectives, and asked them to share their ideas with the larger group. They saw themselves through Linda’s eyes: capable, intelligent, socially conscious educators.

In writing the second grant proposal in 2002, Marianne included funding for similar initiatives of professional inquiry. She brought nationally known social justice advocates such as Bill Bigelow and Linda Christensen; author and historian Howard Zinn; artist/educator Barbara Ellmann; and Jeff Sapp from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The project also co-sponsored a university lecture series to bring respected educators such as Deborah Meier and the Algebra Project’s Bob Moses. In both initiatives, Project I-Teach students were able to meet with the presenters and discuss community issues.

In yet another endeavor, Marianne collaborated with TEAMS, based at the University of San Francisco, so participants could enroll in AmeriCorps, in part to learn how service-learning deepens students’ ability to make meaning. Several students, for example, serving as teacher/mentors to a group of local high school students, helped them develop a service-learning project on the life and values?respect for life, celebrating community, knowledge, innovation, and nonviolence?of farmworker organizer César Chavez. The project culminated in a public photo installation to help students and families see their often maligned community through a more positive lens.

Because Project I-Teach students did this work as a community of learners, they continue to support one another as they face the frustrations of public education. They call one another for reinforcement, they email, and they meet at local educational forums. A group even organized a trip to San Francisco for the 2008 Teachers 4 Social Justice Conference, a trip we had made together the final year of the project. Project I-Teach graduates also often work together. One local school has four I-Teach participants as teachers, another has three, providing an important support network.

Perception Through Aesthetic Education

An unexpectedly important component came from our third theme for study and growth: Developing Perception Through Aesthetic Education. Educational philosopher and author Maxine Greene defines aesthetics as the branch of philosophy concerned with “perception, sensation, imagination, and how they relate to knowing, understanding, and feeling about the world” (2001). She describes education as “a process of enabling persons to become different . . . [able to] look through the lenses of various ways of knowing, seeing, and feeling in a conscious endeavor to impose different orders upon experience.” Greene uses Wallace Stevens’ (1982) blue guitar as a metaphor for the imagination:

They said, “You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

In a way, our students came to Chapman University with a blue guitar, their very presence changing the way things are and reflecting a new perspective. At the same time, we believed, enriching their educational opportunities might provide them the means to play that guitar as educators, changing the status quo to better serve students whose ethnic, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds are too often marginalized.

Greene, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, advocates that students engage live works of art in order to help them harness and develop their imaginations. She acknowledges that the arts “do not change the world, but they change the living beings who might change the world.” Project I-Teach worked in this way, providing opportunities for students to empower themselves so that they could change education and thereby change the world. We wanted to refocus their understanding of education away from decontextualized learning, toward the power of the imagination to shape change in individual and community life.

We made a concerted effort to develop the aesthetic education theme, in part by investing in season tickets at South Coast Repertory Theatre. We realized that if our students were to have aesthetic experiences that released their imaginations to the possible, we would have to develop their “ability to pull aside the curtain of habit, automatism, banality, so that alternative possibilities can be perceived” (Greene, 2001). Through short entry-point experiences and attending the plays, I-Teach students began to feel they belonged at the theatre, began to realize that their own meaning-making with the arts allowed them to question assumptions about education and the larger society. The work of transforming self and society became inextricably linked with the work of art.

A most powerful experience occurred in the summer of 2006 when we took 20 students to the Lincoln Center Institute in New York City. The students read Greene prior to the weeklong institute, and, in a post-institute reflection session Ruben captured the essence of the project’s work with the aesthetic education theme:

This, in turn, will enable my students to find their true selves, to be enlightened with self discovery, to enjoy the process of learning that puts them at the center of the curriculum, and to help them realize that their voices, backgrounds, actions, and minds matter in this world.

Into the Future

Ten years after the project started, the second five-year federal grant ended. Supported by the two of us, and occasionally by an assistant, the project has become a model for preparing and retaining teachers for ethnic and linguistically driven communities. I-Teach participants remain engaged learners, with three quarters of them having completed or enrolled in master’s degree programs?a significant percentage given the low high school and college completion rates for Latino and African American students.

Through example and position, I-Teach teachers are beginning to create opportunities to reshape not just what is taught, but how content is presented, how communities are served, and how students and families are supported and respected. They are, indeed, students from the community returning to the community, strengthening the roots of social change.


Greene, M. (2001). Variations on a blue guitar: The Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Merino, B. (2007). Identifying critical competencies for teachers of English learners. University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Newsletter, 16(4). Retrieved December 30, 2008, from

Rodgers, C. (2006). “The turning of one’s soul”?Learning to teach for social justice: The Putney Graduate School of Teacher Education (1950?1964). Teachers College Record, 108(7). 1266-1295. ID Number: 12556, Date Accessed: 8/15/2008.

Marianne Smith is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Education Leadership and Policy at the University of California, Riverside. Her research focuses on first-generation college students and the role of student services in persistence and retention. She currently works as an independent education consultant. For more information about Project I-Teach, contact Marianne at Contact Me. Jan Osborn holds a joint faculty appointment in English and Education at Chapman University. She will complete a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of California, Riverside in summer 2009. She can be reached at Contact Me.

*Some students’ names have been changed for this article.