MOUNT VERNON — Five years ago, educators in the Burlington-Edison and Mount Vernon school districts, at Skagit Valley College and at Western Washington University set out to solve a problem: how to get not only more teachers, but teachers of color.

“All students benefit from having a more diverse teaching population,” said Nat Reilly, diversity recruitment and retention specialist at Western Washington University’s Woodring College of Education. “Especially students of color.”

On Tuesday, those involved in what is now the Maestros para el Pueblo (Teachers for the Town) program celebrated not only the graduation of 11 students from Skagit Valley College who will now head to Western to become teachers, but the hiring of one of its graduates at a local school.

“The students that this young man will serve will have a person in front of them who is under-represented,” Burlington-Edison School District Superintendent Laurel Browning said of Joshua Serrano, a Mount Vernon High School graduate who will work at Westview Elementary School in Burlington next school year. “He will inspire our young people to become teachers and he will be an excellent role model for students.”

The Maestros program is designed to help Latino high school students earn their teaching degrees from Western with the idea they might then work in their communities.

“It’s serving not only the students that are from from the local high schools, but our community,” said Daisy Padilla-Torres, Skagit Valley College’s Maestros para el Pueblo liaison.

For many of those who have been in the program, teaching is something they’re interested in because they recognize the struggle of going through school without a teacher to connect with.

“It made it hard for me to have meaningful connections with my teachers,” said Jose Cervantes-Aguilar, who is seeking a master’s degree in education from Woodring. “Having students who look like me and I look like them will make them more motivated to graduate.”

Without help from those such as Padilla-Torres, whom he met in high school, Cervantes-Aguilar said he likely wouldn’t have graduated from Skagit Valley College, let alone enter a master’s program.

“There are all sorts of barriers that can be in place in the education system,” said Dan Berard, director of categorical programs for the Mount Vernon School District. “Programs like this offer a pathway.”

Even after only five years, Berard said the schools involved feel the program is a success.

Skagit Valley College President Tom Keegan said the program has become a model throughout the state and the country.

At the small graduation ceremony Tuesday, students heading to Western received colorful scarves embroidered with their names. It was a small but tight-knit group as evidenced by the hugs, compliments and tears that were shed.

“Growing up, I didn’t see myself represented in school,” said graduate Cristal Aguilar. “I knew I wanted to change that. As a future educator, I want to be an agent of change ... and teach our children who we are and where we come from.”

Reilly told the students that each would receive a $1,000 scholarship for Western.

“You are the change we want to see,” said Hugo Santiago, a Maestros graduate who is currently attending Western. “We need more teachers of color in the community. Always remember that you are pursuing the best career of all time.”

— Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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