Impacting Diversity in Polk County

USF students are involved in Project PRIDE, which aims to boost male and minority teachers in elementary education.


At the May 5, 2013 USF Commencement ceremony, a Project PRIDE gathering of College of Education graduates and administrators: Daffne Cruz, Anamarie Figueroa, Perla Balderas-Camacho, Tom Freijo (Co-PI), John Liontas (Principle Investigator), Nate Thomas (Co-PI), Dixie Davis, Matthew Smith, Zachary Harvard, Sara Garcia and Wesley Whitlock.  Photo: Sandra Freijo


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 9, 2013) – Male teachers of all backgrounds are rare in grade schools. Their minority male and female counterparts are scarce as well. They are certainly not represented in line with their presence in the general population. 


That’s why there’s a Project PRIDE and students like Jose Santiago, Mauricus Green and Olga Garcia.


Project PRIDE was created to increase the number of males and minorities in elementary education with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the federal Department of Education awarded to the University of South Florida.


PRIDE stands for Planning and Rewarding Instructional Diversity in Education with its stated goal: “Building the Future One Minority Teacher at a Time.”


The program is active through all the stages of a student’s involvement – recruitment, selection, matriculation, graduation and placement – providing financial support and development opportunities. It is understood that the successful, newly-minted teachers will work in high poverty, high minority elementary schools in Polk County – a guaranteed job after completing coursework and certifications.


“A program like this is long overdue in many communities, and it is truly visionary of Polk County to be working so diligently to help rectify this shortage of minority teachers,” said E. Nathan Thomas, III, USF’s mentoring coordinator for the PRIDE grant.


Project PRIDE was conceived and developed jointly with Polk County Public Schools, Polk State College, and USF in Lakeland in early summer 2011. The funding came from Race to the Top funds, a $4.35 billion U.S. Department of Education competitive grant program designed to spur innovation and reforms in state and local district K-12 education. 


The project’s principal investigators are College of Education Associate Professor John Liontas, Tom Freijo, a visiting faculty member in the College of Education’s Measurement and Research Department and Thomas. There are 61 faculty, staff, students and school district professionals involved in the program.


Thomas’ job is to support the academic and professional success of the program’s participants. He uses his research-based Thomas Principles he developed for his dissertation on identity-based mentoring which focuses on retaining and graduating minority students.


“Adjustment to college and academic success require finding of a sense of identity, psychological as well as academic support, a sense of belonging and the development of leadership skills,” said Thomas.


The program is working – and it has earned praise from Florida Commissioner of Education Tony Bennett.  While meeting with Florida Department of Education administrators who oversee Race to the Top grants in Florida, Liontas and Freijo were privileged to have a rare audience with Bennett.


“He had the highest praise for our program,” Freijo said. “In fact, he said it’s one of the best in the state.”


Liontas added, “Last year we had seven students graduate from USF and enter the school district and this year we will have 15. We now have 21 juniors being trained to teach and 26 faculty, staff and school district professionals serving as mentors.”      


Frist mention of the project received an enthusiastic reaction from Annissa Wilfalk, Polk County Schools’ senior recruiting coordinator.


“I was ecstatic,” she said. “Our education applicant pools continue to decrease. There are fewer students majoring in education, and within that limited pool, even fewer minorities pursuing a degree in education, compared to years past.


“Although student demographics have shifted drastically over the past decade, we have not seen the same shift in the racial and ethnic diversity of instructional and leadership-level staff,’” she said. “One of our goals is to ensure that our instructional staff is reflective of the student population served at each school site.”


Project PRIDE’s students are making the difference she hoped to see.


“They bring a unique set of academic experiences and perspectives to our classrooms,” Wilfalk said. “These scholars bring their own personal challenges with differences, which enables them to relate to similar challenges faced by our students, like language barriers.”


Project PRIDE’s Current and Future Teachers


Project PRIDE Mentoring Coordinator E. Nathan Thomas (r) with Jose Santiago a graduate of Project PRIDE’s first cohort who now teaches at Loughman Oaks Elementary in Polk County.

One of the program’s first-year teachers is Jose Santiago. He was part of USF’s first PRIDE cohort and graduated last May. As a student he was assigned a mentor, Edgar Santiago (no relation), an assistant principal at Mulberry High School. Now as a PRIDE elementary school teacher at Loughman Oaks Elementary, he continues to be mentored by a school district colleague.  Joel Degraaf, a veteran teacher, has the classroom right next door to his.


Originally from New York City, Santiago knew he wanted to be a teacher early on. Project PRIDE showed up right on time.


“I wasn’t aware the program even existed until Dr. Liontas brought it to our attention one day during class,” Santiago said. “He began describing what PRIDE was all about. It seemed like the scholarship was created with me in mind.”


It was. 


“One of the greatest challenges the Polk County Schools face today is the ever-growing disparity between the demographic characteristics of elementary school students and elementary school teachers, wherein 56 percent of the student population is made up of minorities, yet 78 percent of the teachers are non-minority,” says Liontas. “Add to that the dimension of poverty.  Of the 66 elementary schools in the district, 57 are Title 1 schools, where 65 percent of the Polk County students are economically disadvantaged – not to mention the parallel disparities found in academic performance, graduation rates and disciplinary actions related to boys, in particular – and you can see the picture being painted here becomes all the more dire and requiring immediate attention.


“Without a significant infusion of minority teachers, the student-teacher racial/ethnic disparity, if remaining unaddressed, will only become more exacerbated in the years ahead,” Liontas concluded.


Santiago embodies the experience and qualities to be the kind of teacher needed.


“I have always believed in service, especially to your community,” Santiago said. “That’s probably why I joined the Marines. I saw a lot of bad things happen to a lot of people I knew when I was growing up – friends, family, etc. I have always felt that so many of these people had so much potential, but they just needed that one person to make a difference in their lives, that one person to get them on the right track.”


Moving to Florida from Brooklyn also had an impact on his outlook.


“When I first moved to Haines City, I suffered culture shock,” he said. “It seemed as if teachers here were not used to having, or dealing with Hispanic students. I was sent to a class, and the teacher sat me in the corner with all the other Latino students and pretty much forgot about me. I’m not sure if she knew if I even spoke English. She didn’t understand the difference in culture between myself and the other Latino students in the class. It was an awkward semester.”


It was finally when his own son started school, that he began to think, “I might be able to help students in similar situations,” he said. “I feel like students can look at me and see someone they can relate to – someone that may genuinely understand their academic and personal struggles.”


Current student Mauricus “Rico” Green, with three more semesters to go, was contemplating working toward an MBA when he got wind of the program.


“Project PRIDE has opened a door for me to a profession that I never considered,” he said. “I have been given the opportunity to start a second career at 37 years of age and after 12 plus years in the consumer finance industry. Without PRIDE I'm sure I would have been taking out student loans to fund an MBA with no job security or a position waiting for me.”


Green is originally from Birmingham, Ala. He’s a graduate of the University of Alabama where he majored in marketing and went on to work in mortgage banking. He’s learning an important lesson about himself on his new path.


“Until I joined PRIDE and gained more knowledge about the teaching profession and the shortage of men and minorities in elementary education, I had no idea how valuable I could be. I knew I had a certain amount of value as a sales professional, but PRIDE has made me realize that I can make a greater impact as a teacher.”


Olga Garcia, who just graduated from USF last weekend, has had the goal of becoming a teacher for a long time. The first in her family to graduate from college, she is following in Santiago’s footsteps.


“Without this opportunity I don’t think I would have been able to keep such a positive attitude about my major,” she said. “I feel that Project Pride has given me the tools necessary to become a successful teacher – not only financial assistance but also training that will help me in the classroom and also in working with coworkers.”


From Plant City, Garcia expects to be assigned to a school in Lakeland this August.


Now well on his way, Santiago finds himself going the extra mile. In addition to teaching, he tutors two days a week after school and also serves as a mentor to USF College of Education senior Matt Smith and junior Bianca Montejo.


“I really enjoy being a mentor. I enjoy sharing my experiences and advising people that are in the same situation I was in at one time. I love giving people the advice I wish I had been given,” he said.


Teaching may not be for everyone, but Santiago would like to see more people like himself in the classroom, even as challenging as the work is.


“All I ever hear from anyone is, ‘You must have a lot of patience. I couldn’t do it.’ But I absolutely love teaching. I know I made the right choice. It’s the best job in the world. The best thing about teaching is the students. They make every day new and interesting. They bring the best out of you, most of the time,” he said laughing.  “I have enjoyed watching them grow from the beginning of the year until now. I feel fortunate to have been a part of that.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.