Skip to main content

Chicago's Unique Program Makes Teachers Out of Moms


Chicago’s Unique Program Makes Teachers Out of Moms

The Unique Teacher Education Model Uplifts Women of Color

New America Media, News Report, Carolyn Ji Jong Goossen, Posted: May 08, 2008

Editor’s Note: To solve the chronic teacher shortage problem in its public schools, Chicago is reaching deep into its own neighborhoods.

Ten years ago, Latina mothers were actively participating in a thriving parent mentor program in Chicago’s north side community of Logan Square. They were trained and placed in classrooms to help a teacher for about two hours a day.

While motivated mothers were doing good work in the local schools with no intention of leaving, for certified classroom teachers it was a revolving door. So new teachers had to be hired to replace them, but the newcomers too had no long-term plans to stay.

Alarmed by what was happening, the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) members thought to themselves: Why can’t these mothers become teachers themselves?

This question eventually led to the creation of Grow Your Own (GYO), a unique teacher-training program that has spread across the state of Illinois, with plans to train 1,000 teachers by 2016.

GYO’s goal is not to simply staff the classroom but produce teachers who understand the students’ needs and their background.

The GYO model not only has a far reaching impact on its public school students but also on those who are currently being trained to teach them, the majority of whom are low-income women from Chicago’s African-American and Latino communities. The program offers free tuition, tutoring and a strong support system for its teacher candidates. By training parent advocates to become teachers, they are lifting families out of poverty and into economic stability.

Patricia Lopez was a parent mentor and tutor for years before getting her associate’s degree in early childhood education and working as a teacher’s assistant in bilingual classrooms. Today, she is working full time as a teacher’s assistant at New Field Elementary School, while also attending evening and weekend school through the Grow Your Own program. She is working to get a bachelor’s degree, as well as a teacher’s certification.

A petite woman with bright eyes and a wide smile, she moves swiftly between the school’s second and third grade classes, pulling out kids who need help. They chat with her excitedly as she takes them to a table tucked away in the corner of the hallway. All the classrooms she works in are bilingual, with Spanish being the first language of the students.

Lopez’s dream is to be a classroom teacher for the first or second grade. She has no aspirations to become a principal. “I want to teach,” she says. “I want to give the children self-confidence and pride in themselves and their cultures. I want them to know that they are smart and have bright futures.”

Downstairs in the same school, teacher assistant Margo Silva is working in a specialized classroom made up of a small group of autistic kids aged three to five. Most of the children don’t speak, so she has them communicate by holding up small images. “I like the challenge of working with autistic children,” says Silva, an African American married to a Puerto Rican. “When I started, I read up everything I could on autism.”

Like Lopez, she is training to become a fully certified teacher through the GYO program. “I want to work with troubled kids,” she says.

Lopez not only works and goes to school, but is also very active in her church, and is on the board of the local housing development council.

Lopez and Silva have many things in common, and their stories mirror those of many who are enrolled in the program. Over 80 percent of GYO students are women, with nearly 88 percent of them either Latina or African American.

For Lopez, her biggest challenge has been balancing her ambitions with her husband’s reluctance about her going to school. He is well respected at the factory where he works as a supervisor, she says, but never had the chance to be educated himself.

And in college, she is self-conscious about not being able to speak English too well. She prefers being with other women in the GYO program. She is working hard at improving her English language skills.

Silva’s challenge is her health. A kidney condition forced her to be on dialysis for three years. After recovering, she began doubting her memory. And so even though she had an associate’s degree in early childhood education, she was trying to find a program that would allow her to “start from the beginning,” with English 101 and math 101.

The schools she approached didn’t fill her needs, and she was too shy to explain to them her past illness. Now, in the GYO program, her confidence has grown. She is beginning to realize that “I know more than I thought I did.”

GYO has grown statewide. It is funded by the state and is therefore subject to budgetary stresses and strains. Even though the program has strong legislative support, it is currently hampered for want of funding. Last year there was no budget increase, so no new candidates were added to the program.
There are currently 567 students on its rolls. This summer, a total of seven teachers will have been trained through the program.

The full extent of their impact on the schools will not be known until the first batch of students have been in schools at least a few years. GYO academic advisor and tutor Morgan Halstead, is doing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Illinois, Chicago, on GYO.

Halstead expects the program to have a significantly positive impact on the personal lives of the mothers who become teachers.

“They will make three to four times more than they make now,” she says. Assistant teachers will make two to three times more.

At home, these teachers in training often find themselves facing a role reversal, says Halstead. Daughters and mothers sit together and help each other with their respective homework.

And there will be a wider impact as well. A child’s success in school is determined less by race or class than it is by the mother’s education level. The better educated the mother is, the more likely is the child to be motivated in school.

Read the article online here: