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Barry Carter, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Michelle Pena has known since kindergarten that she wanted to be a teacher, even though she didn’t have many, if any, who shared her Hispanic heritage as she moved throughout the Newark school district.

A senior at East Side High School, Pena, 18, is still set on working in the classroom, and being a role model for kids, whom she said rarely get to see a teacher that looks like them. It’s one of the main reasons why she wants to be one.

“That would be the best thing that could ever happen,” said Pena, who is member of Future Teachers of America Club at East Side. “It will help them (students) be more interested and connect with the school.”

The city’s school district is banking on that enthusiasm — it plans to harness it at the new Teacher Education Academy, a program that will prepare Newark students to be teachers, and create a pipeline of diversity that is lacking in the district, the state and across the country.


“It’s common sense that we need to have as role models for kids people who look like them, people who kids feel comfortable with,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

Nationally, Weingarten said 45 percent of students in the country are kids of color and 83 percent of the teachers are white. It’s even more lopsided when it comes to gender, she said, explaining that 80 percent of teachers are women.

“If we want to actually break down stereotypes and all of the polarization and division that we see now, diversity of the teaching force is a really good place to start.”

John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, said the district is moving in the right direction, but he’d rather have the right teacher, regardless of color, than have the wrong teacher because of color.

Teachers, however, still have to be compensated to be retained, and Abeigon hopes Newark can keep the talent it is training by making salaries competitive with neighboring school districts.

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