In the whitest state in the nation, Portland’s schools stand out as one of the most diverse populations in Maine. More than 40 percent of the students in Portland classrooms are people of color, and more than 60 languages are spoken.

But the teaching staff is still 95 percent white.

A new course at the University of Southern Maine, created in partnership with district leaders, aims to balance that out by inviting people of color who are interested in becoming teachers to take the course. Over the next five weeks, about 45 students – some of whom were teachers in their home countries – will spend four days a week in Portland summer school programs, and one day a week at USM discussing their experiences.

Portland School Superintendent Xavier Botana, who visited the class on its first day Friday, said it was “very exciting” to see the packed room.

“I was just thrilled to feel the energy in that room,” Botana said. “It’s awesome to see 50 people from all walks of life coming together around the possibility of becoming a teacher.”

About a third of the class are people who were teachers in their home countries, some of whom are already in the pipeline to get local teaching credentials. Another third are university students who are exploring whether to go into teaching, and about a third are juniors and seniors in Portland’s high schools who are considering teaching as a profession.

“What is so incredibly exciting is the positive response from the number of people willing to come and participate,” said USM professor Catherine Fallona, who helped create the three-unit course and tailor it to the Portland school district. “It really gives you a positive feeling.”

Having a more diverse staff is one of the district’s long-term goals, Botana said, adding that it came up repeatedly when the district was interviewing him for the job.

“When I started, it was obvious there was a tremendous amount of energy around this issue,” he said. He assigned senior staff to consolidate various piecemeal efforts around diversity, leading to several comprehensive programs this year, including this class. Another was embracing the ideals behind a “Parents Manifesto” on how to improve communication with immigrant families, and forming a committee to work with immigrant parents, removing barriers that have left some families feeling alienated.

The USM class is being taught by Grace Valenzuela, an adjunct professor at USM and the head of the district’s Multilingual and Multicultural Center.

Fallona, who specializes in teacher education, said numerous studies have shown the benefit of having a diverse teaching staff, for both white and non-white students.

“This is such an important move to diversify our teaching force,” she said. “The students really need to see themselves in the teachers that they have. In some ways, the more our schools are reflective of all our community members, we will become a more integrated society.”

Teachers, she said, also play a key role in understanding different cultures and backgrounds.

“(Teachers) can be such a source of creating stronger communities that go across cultural lines,” Fallona said.

Nationwide, non-white students became a majority of students in America’s public schools in 2014-15. Yet a 2014 report by the National Education Association found that the number of teachers of color had actually declined from 26 percent in 1994 to just 18 percent in 2014, prompting a call for more diversity in the teaching profession.

“A teaching force that represents the nation’s racial, ethnic, and linguistic cultures and effectively incorporates this background and knowledge to enhance students’ academic achievement is advantageous to the academic performance of students of all backgrounds, and for students of color specifically,” the report’s authors wrote.

Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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