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Brian Stimson of The Skanner
Published: 27 May 2009

When Natasha Butler was a young woman right out of high school, she was aimless. She had a job, she attended a few classes at Portland Community College, but she admits she wasn't looking that far into the future. Then, on the urging of a friend, she signed up for, and was accepted to, the Portland Teachers Program at PCC.

"It saved my life," said Butler, who is now the director of DeLaSalle North High School. "They saw something in me that I had yet to discover myself."

For 20 years, the Portland Teacher's Program has been helping minority students become teachers in Portland. On Friday, May 29 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., the Program will celebrate those 20 years, honoring first-year students, graduates and alumni at PCC Cascade's Moriarty Arts and Humanities Building Auditorium, 705 N. Killingsworth St. Ron Herndon, National Head Start Association board chair and Albina Head Start director, will emcee the event.

The Portland Teachers Program is much more than typical teacher training. Program Director and co-founder Deborah Cochrane says her students are given classes in cultural competency and are trained to teach their students how to become independent thinkers. They come from all walks of life, races and ethnicities, all ages and many have a child or other dependent for whom they care.

"I hope were producing teachers whose goal it is to create critical thinkers," she said. "Democracy is a joke if citizens can't think for themselves."

The program is a bit like boot camp for educators. After a student is accepted into the program – most are there because they feel a calling to teach, says Cochrane – they attend Portland Community College for two years, then Portland State or University of Portland for two years, then they spend a year in graduate studies and in-class experience. On top of that, students must attend a number of seminars designed to enhance their abilities as educators in a diverse environment. The seminars include subjects on race and class, White privilege, leadership, internalized racism, practicing non-judgment, and others.

Butler says the diversity training was essential for creating a well-balanced teacher and it was absent from normal college coursework.

"In comparison to individuals who go to school here that are not affiliated with the Portland Teachers Program," she told The Skanner. "They don't get what we get with the Portland Teachers Program."

The main perk of the program is that it's free. But the program does come with a price. Exiting students must interview for a position in Portland. If they secure a job in the district, they must stay at least three years, lest they be forced to pay back their school expenses.

"Think of it like a forgivable loan," she said.

But for the most part, Cochrane says this isn't an issue. The 10 to 15 people admitted to the program each year are there because they have a calling to teach. Many students live in Portland, have family in Portland and want to remain in the city.

For Butler, teaching in Portland was a priority. When she was about to undergo her student teaching, she was assigned to the Clackamas District.

"I wanted to be able to teach to those students who look like me," she said. She was reassigned to Beaumont Middle School after appealing her placement.

In a district that graduates only 61 percent of its African American students, Cochrane says getting more qualified teachers of color in the classroom is essential. And not just for minorities, but for Whites as well.

Cochrane, who is White, says her frame of mind changed when a teacher of color became her mentor during college.

"My whole orientation was being shaped from a different culture," she said.

Butler says the power of a minority teacher in the classroom is about familiarity. While she's seen ineffective and effective teachers from across the racial spectrum, seeing a familiar face can provide the foundation for positive learning for some students. In Portland, minorities comprise only about 12 percent of teachers, but about 43 percent of students.

"What a minority teacher brings is a sense of comfort and relationship," Butler said. "There's nothing more relaxing than to walk into a room and see someone who is not foreign to you. If you feed the soul, the mind will follow."

Cochrane agrees, especially when it comes to students who come from different cultural backgrounds than the majority of the teachers.

"It can be the one person in that building that understands where the student is coming from," Cochrane said.


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