Plagued by a teacher shortage in general and the nation’s lowest rate of teachers of color, Pennsylvania education officials Wednesday announced a program to recruit, train, and keep a more diverse force of educators.

The program, Aspiring to Educate — the first of its kind in the nation, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said — will provide free or reduced tuition at Community College of Philadelphia and Temple, Drexel, West Chester, Arcadia, and Cabrini Universities, as well as mentoring support. It will be piloted in Philadelphia with support from the Philadelphia Youth Network and the Center for Black Educator Development.

Pennsylvania’s teaching pool has shrunk by more than 65% since 2013, and the educator force is 96% white, making the state’s teacher ranks the least diverse in the United States, officials said.

“Aspiring to Educate will help Pennsylvania attract, recruit, train, and retain a new generation of teachers and school leaders,” Rivera said at a news conference at CCP.

The Philadelphia School District will soon identify at least 20 high school seniors with strong grades and a desire to enter the education field; they will have after-school guidance, gain teaching experience over the summer, and enroll in education schools in the fall of 2020. Going forward, juniors will begin the program by partnering with a university to take dual enrollment courses, earning college credits in high school.

The program also will provide pathways for older students and adults to enter the teaching field. People with at least 30 credits will be given financial support to enter the program and hiring priority once they finish it. Nontraditional candidates who already have earned bachelor’s degrees in fields other than education will also be considered.

If the program is successful, more and better-prepared teachers will find their way into classrooms, but officials hope for more than that.

“It’s also a narrative about elevating the profession at large,” said Noe Ortega, Pennsylvania deputy secretary for postsecondary and higher education. “This is about a pathway to becoming a change maker in the lives of students and ultimately families.”

The aim is eventually to expand the program beyond Philadelphia to districts across the commonwealth.

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School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. has made focusing on diversifying Philadelphia’s classrooms a priority for his administration.

In Philadelphia, 36% of new teachers and 31% of all teachers are educators of color, Hite said.

“While we’re ahead of the curve at least here in the commonwealth, we recognize that there is significant room for growth,” Hite said.

Sharif El-Mekki, who began his career as a teacher at Turner Middle School in West Philadelphia, founded the Center for Black Educator Development precisely to accelerate that growth.

“When students have teachers who reflect them — their gender, race, ethnicity, cultural, and life experiences — they do better,” El-Mekki said. “White students have mirrors in front of them leading the classroom, and that reinforces their identity, and their goals and their aspirations. Students of color often don’t have these mirrors; they have windows and quite frequently are marginalized looking at other people in their aspirations.”

Recruitment is underway for the first cohort of Aspiring to Educate students. “This could be a game-changer in this city,” El-Mekki said.