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As a kid, Jai Burks loved music, used to sit on the hood of the family car in the driveway of his Baton Rouge, Louisiana, home and listen to the college band practice across the street.

At the time, he hated school just about as much as he loved music. Two things changed that.

The first was in fourth grade, when his music teacher walked into his classroom, saw him, and said to the teacher “Have you seen this kid play? You need to hear this boy play. He can play.”

All heads turned to a young, trombone-playing Jai, and a heady sense of self-esteem coursed through him like a shot of adrenaline.

The second thing happened at home, where he was the only one in the family who could calm his sister down and get her to do her homework. Once, when he was helping her, his mom leaned down and said in his ear, “I think you found your calling.”

Turns out she was right, which was why Burks was telling this story to a roomful of high school students at the Lincoln Public Schools administrative offices recently.

“I figured if I could be an educator, I could bring along people who didn’t have the advantages I did,” he said. “I could bring them along through music.”

Burks is one of 44 African-American educators at LPS — 1.2 percent of the district’s certificated staff, which is 94.6 percent white. He was joined by three administrators — all people of color who sat on a panel at the front of the room.

They looked out at a sea of color: about 60 students of different races who'd come to learn about being educators.

North Star High School junior Anthony Nguyen was there because he knows he wants to be an educator.

Lincoln High School senior Maia Ramsay was there for the second year, because even though she wants to pursue biochemistry and eventually become a dermatologist, she wants to impact people’s lives in various ways.

“It’s definitely important to learn skills to educate people,” she said.

Teachers have encouraged her and empowered her to be herself, given her a platform to express her ideas, she said. At Lincoln High, where the hallways are full of students of many races, those haven’t necessarily been teachers of color, she said, but have understood who she is, and accepted her.

But when she was younger and her school was less diverse, having teachers who looked like her was important — and that happened twice, the first time in seventh grade.

Joanna Calel, a Lincoln High sophomore, hasn’t decided what she wants to do after high school, but believes having a diverse teaching staff is important.

The first teacher of color she had was at Lincoln High, and because she was a different race than Calel, getting to know her teacher shattered some of Calel’s own stereotypes, she said.

As a student in the pre-International Baccalaureate program, Calel said she was surprised by the lack of diversity in the academically rigorous program.

As one of the few people of color, when certain issues — such as immigration — arise, all eyes turn to her. While she’s passionate about the subject, that’s not the only lens she looks through.

“I have a lot more to say.”

And so she came to the annual workshop hosted by Thomas Christie, the district’s multicultural administrator. He got the idea at a conference about 20 years ago.

“It was the idea of growing your own,” he said. “I wanted to do this for LPS.”

Some of the students who have participated now teach at LPS. Christie doesn’t know how many exactly, but he can name several of them, and knows others in college now earning their teaching degrees.

But recruiting and hiring minorities is a challenge. There aren’t that many students of color getting education degrees, and those who are are in great demand, Christie said.

Nationally, students of color made up nearly half of the student population, compared with just 18 percent of the teaching population, according to a 2014 study by the Center for American Progress.

The Nebraska Department of Education has joined nine other states in an initiative to diversify its teaching force, with a goal of enacting, revising or removing state policies to encourage a more diversified workforce by 2020. 

Nebraska would need to hire seven times more African-American and Native educators and 11 times more Hispanic educators to reflect the student population today, said state Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt.

And convincing students from other states to come to Nebraska can be especially challenging, Christie said, although LPS officials managed to convince Burks.

He turned down LPS recruiters who’d come to Baton Rouge the first few times, because the only thing he knew about Nebraska was that it had a good football team and sometimes the LSU baseball team played in the College World Series in Omaha.

But he changed his mind and in 1997 moved to Lincoln, to become one of 45 black educators. At the time, students of color made up 12.3 of total enrollment, compared with 3.6 percent of the teachers, administrators and other certificated staff.

Today, 5.3 percent of LPS educators are people of color, but student diversity has grown at a faster rate. This year, 33 percent of LPS students are racial or ethnic minorities. In the past five years, LPS has hired 71 people of color and has made diversifying the staff one of its strategic goals.

And Friday, Burks, North Star Principal Vann Price, Southwest High School Associate Principal Marco Pedroza and LPS Director of Curriculum and Instruction Takako Olson joined Burks to talk about their experiences and offer advice.

The most important part of being successful, they told students, is to believe in themselves, and be passionate about what they do.

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“Don’t be afraid of telling your own story,” said Price. “For years, I wouldn’t tell people I grew up poor and on welfare. But that is part of my story. Don’t be ashamed of your own story and realize there is a place where your story can be told.”

Today, when students tell her they can’t afford certain activities, she can say "I’ve been there."

“There’s someone out there who can relate to your story,” she said.

Reading and writing, said Olson, is the most important skill they'll learn, especially in applying for jobs. Being well-spoken matters, too, said Burks. He dropped his southern drawl, he said, so people would take him seriously.

Olson told students who speak two languages — and more than half the students said they did — not to lose that gift because, she said, it will only help them as they pursue their careers.

Students asked panel members if they’d experienced prejudice.

Yes, said Pedroza, who grew up working the beet fields in Scottsbluff and became a bilingual liaison before getting his teaching certificate. But the key, he said, is being proud of who you are anyway.

“You look past it and work through it,” he said. “It’s a very big piece of who we are.”

The best way to get past it is building relationships, communication, talking to people one-on-one, getting to know them and letting them get to know you, the panelists said.

As the only Asian district director, Olson said, she’s instantly judged when she walks in a room.

“It’s OK,” she said. “It also gives me the opportunity to let them know who I am. So take advantage of it.”

Price said she’s humbled to be the only black principal many of her students have ever seen, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to influence others.

“That is so special,” she said. “I love that.”

Christie noted that right now, Price is the only principal of color in the district. And the longtime administrator, who will retire at the end of the year, challenged the last group of students he’ll lead in the workshop he started two decades ago.

“Ten years from now I want one of you to be a principal at LPS.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist.

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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