By France Griggs Sloat
On Thursday nights, a group of African-American men and women stands in a circle in the computer lab at the Cohen Center. With hands clasped and heads bowed, they listen as Leon Render prays, asking God to grant them the ability to absorb the knowledge presented to them with intelligent thought and dialogue.
In some ways, the group’s prayers have already been answered. It began last May, in a steamy Laundromat on Cincinnati’s west side when three members of the group—Render, Sam Canty and Will Hodge—gathered to figure out their futures. They were all long-term substitute teachers in the Cincinnati Public Schools, and administrators were warning them they would lose their jobs by 2005 unless they earned their state teacher’s license. Under the new law created by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, public schools have to replace non-licensed substitutes with qualified licensed teachers or lose federal dollars.
So as Canty folded clothes, the men talked. And by the time Canty folded his last shirt, they had a plan to save their jobs—and then some.
They began meeting every Thursday, and with each meeting the group grew. By mid-July, 21 fellow substitute teachers whose jobs are similarly threatened—including some who already had been laid off—were attending.
The plan was to find a program they could complete together. All have their undergraduate degrees, so they shopped for a college that could give them a master’s degree program and the courses they need to pass the state teacher licensure tests in the shortest time and at the lowest cost.
They looked at several local colleges, including a tuition-free grant program, but when they came to Xavier, everything clicked. The group, now numbering 20, met with department of education chairman Jim Boothe and others, who created a schedule of evening and summer courses that will prepare them to pass the state test for a teacher’s license in special education by 2005 and continue toward a master’s degree.
“They were accommodating and they gave us Thursday night classes and a professor to teach us,” Hodge says.
On top of that, Xavier gave the group a substantial tuition discount. Boothe says the University’s saw the arrangement as an opportunity to give back to the community by helping increase the number of minority teachers in the local school system.
“We’re offering them personalized scheduling,” Boothe says. “They’re a close-knit group and they wanted to go through this together. We’re accommodating that.”
As African-American licensed special education teachers, half of whom are men, they will be among the hottest commodities in education today. Among the greatest shortages in education today are special education and black male teachers. Cincinnati Public Schools, which is 72 percent black, is desperate to hire black male teachers to be role models for its students.
“We’re here to help people become teachers, especially in areas where there’s a shortage and in light of President [Michael J.] Graham’s mission to be active in the community,” Boothe says. “What I’ve learned is what perseverance and focus and a purpose can do for people. This group is together not just physically but spiritually.”
As this particular evening’s prayer closes and the students settle in their seats, they listen as their classmates make presentations about issues germane to special education, including one young man’s passionate soliloquy on his personal experience as an angry and mistreated dyslexic child.
The prayer at the beginning and end of each class is vital to the group, says Renee Ward, a licensed teacher at Mt. Airy Elementary who is seeking her master’s degree. It helps bind the members in the shared goal of finishing. When one member falters, the others help pick that member back up.
The students know it won’t be easy, and some will be tempted to quit, Hodge admits. Most have been out of school a long time. Homework, papers, presentations and tests are a distant memory. Many will struggle to make even the reduced tuition, which Hodge is hoping will be alleviated through other grants or donations. He and Ward have had to work with several members of the group already, building up their confidence and convincing them they can succeed.
But they’re confident.
“We have a foundation,” Ward says. “There will be no dropouts.”