Frank Hernandez can still recall the name of his first teacher who looked like him, had a similar background as him and had a Spanish last name.

Mr. Balerio. 

In him, Hernandez saw a fellow Hispanic man in a position he didn’t know one could hold. He became a role model for Hernandez, an educator who now leads the College of Education at Texas Christian University.

Few teachers are like Hernandez or Balerio. Despite shifting student demographics, teaching is an overwhelmingly white and women-dominated field across the nation and in Texas. About 2% of U.S. teachers are Hispanic men. The TCU College of Education is working to change that through its Maestro Program, an initiative in its inaugural year that could help get more Hispanic men on the path to teaching.

Getting more Hispanic men in classrooms could help students realize their full potential by seeing someone who looks like them successfully make a career, according to organizers. Maestro supports students’ efforts to earn a bachelor’s degree and teaching credentials through financial help and connects each future educator to a mentor — areas that many Hispanic men need to attain a college degree. In return, students have to dedicate five years of teaching service to a Fort Worth-area school district.

“Latino males need more role models, and motivating mentors. We need to show them that getting a degree has long-term impacts on their families,” Hernandez said.

More than half of 5.3 million students enrolled in Texas schools are Latino. However, fewer than one out of three teachers are Latino. In fact, almost 57% of the state’s 369,395 teachers are white, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Teachers are mostly white in school districts inside the city of Fort Worth. Only one, Everman ISD, has a teaching staff that is a majority of teachers of color.

Student enrollment in the state and Fort Worth school districts is almost evenly divided between boys and girls. Teachers do not have parity on sex. Around three out of four teachers in the state and Fort Worth districts are women. 

Steve Przymus, a professor of bilingual education, is the faculty lead for Maestro. Educators use an analogy of windows and mirrors to explain why students need to see people who are like them, he said.

“We want kids to have mirrors to see themselves in the classroom, but we want them to have windows as well to see possible futures after school and what education can bring them,” Przymus said. “When you see yourself represented in schools then those mirrors and windows come easier.”

‘Given us energy’

Four TCU students are in the inaugural Maestro cohort.

Each has a mentor who, as Przymus describes, is a rockstar Hispanic male teacher in Fort Worth. A mentor is key for these students. They gain an insider’s look at teaching. That person also is the start of a network for Maestro participants and gives them a leg up for when they seek teaching jobs, Przymus said.

Every month, Przymus sets up a seminar for Maestro students. They hear from community leaders who are in education and help in their development as teachers. Mentors also attend these meetings as a way to help them advance their own career development. Plus, the seminars offer another chance for students to further expand their network.

Maestro also stresses the importance of participants taking part in a study abroad program. Finances are often a barrier for students, particularly those of color or from lower income families, that stop them from studying abroad. However, the College of Education is working to fundraise enough money to support students to study abroad. 

Freddy Garcia, a senior in Maestro, finds the study abroad component crucial. Garcia, 45, is a non-traditional college student, a fact he readily admits. He earned a scholarship to study abroad in Europe. Without that financial support, he most likely would not have been able to see the world beyond the U.S. nor use that experience for when he eventually becomes a teacher.

“These experiences I take back to my classroom to show other students who are from my background that, look, you can go to Europe, you can go do it in college, you can see all these beautiful things and not have money and not be from an affluent family,” Garcia said.

Over the next five years, Maestro wants to get at least 50 Hispanic men through the program and in Fort Worth schools. Hernadez expects Maestro teachers to be ready to lead classrooms, and could save districts tens of thousands of dollars in training. 

No measurable outcomes have come out of Maestro just yet. No participating students have graduated. Garcia will be the first when he earns his bachelor’s degrees in educational studies as well as Spanish and Hispanic studies in December. 

However, the program has seen some successes.

Last spring, Przymus and Hernandez visited high schools throughout Fort Worth to tell students about their new program. They snagged a couple of graduating high school students who are now in Maestro. 

Two students does not sound like a lot. However, Przymus said to consider the few Hispanic men teaching.

“It doesn’t take much to have your male teacher candidate numbers go up,” he said. “They may be small successes, but they’re definitely ones that have given us energy.”

TCC South/FWISD Collegiate High School students walk to class on Aug. 15. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

‘A drastic shortage’

Maestro was born from Hernandez looking back at his experiences as a classroom teacher and his work as a Presidential Leadership Scholar.

He drilled down into why Hispanic men aren’t becoming teachers. Largely, it is an access issue. Through his research, he found that finances are often the top reason Hispanic men list as why they don’t pursue higher education.

The hurdles to become a teacher are high. The cost of tuition plus books and fees to earn an undergraduate degree is expensive. Students lose income while in school — and keep missing out on money that could help their families when they have to be enrolled in clinical teaching.

For many Hispanic men, they support their family while attending school full time. When push comes to shove, many abandon their pursuit of a degree so their families have what they need.

“Going to college directly from high school doesn’t help with finances, but getting a job will,” Hernandez said.

Other reasons explain the lack of Hispanic men teachers, too. The Education Trust, a national nonprofit promoting high academic achievement for all students, has a laundry list of reasons for why Hispanics as a whole do not attain a college degree at rates similar to their white peers. They include:

  • Less access to high-quality pre-kindergarten.
  • Attend poorly funded schools.
  • Less access to experienced teachers.
  • Don’t have a full range of math and science classes and more rigorous courses, such as AP or International Baccalaureate programs.
  • Lack of school counselors.

All of these disadvantages add up. An Education Trust analysis found that 20.7% of Hispanic men attained a college degree. Hispanic women’s attainment was higher at 26.6%. Both attainment rates, though, are significantly lower than those of white men and women. 

Hispanic men are still behind Hispanic women in attaining a degree. The attainment gap between Hispanic men and women in Texas is 5.1 percentage points, according to an Education Trust analysis.

The state has a goal to have at least 60% of Texans 25 to 34 to attain a post-secondary credential by 2030. Less than 19% of Hispanic men in Texas have attained a degree — a gap of 41.3 percentage points to the statewide goal, according to the Education Trust.

Even if a Hispanic student makes it through all of that, Hernandez brought up another obstacle: A lack of support and incentives to lead a classroom.

Enter Maestro. Hernandez and Przymus built the program to provide the necessary supports to help Hispanic students become high-quality teachers. 

All of these factors pointed Hernandez to a conclusion.

“Texas faces a drastic shortage of Latino males in the elementary classroom, where they can serve as role models and achieve social, educational and financial stability,” he said.

‘Growing pains going forward’

Teaching fellow Ismael Sanchez helps students in a writing class for Breakthrough Fort Worth on July 5 at Fort Worth Country Day, 4200 Country Day Lane. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

While in its infancy, Przymus and Hernandez acknowledged they have learned plenty of lessons as they establish Maestro. 

Recruiting is key to Maestro. However, Hernandez thinks the program needs to start recruiting not when students enter college nor in high school. He wants to start recruiting students as early as middle school to show them that teaching is a viable pathway.

“We’ve also learned that male students want to be involved with a program like Maestro. They want a connection with other male students,” Hernandez said.

Money, though, likely will be one of the program’s biggest challenges. TCU supports Maestro students through scholarships and financial aid, but fundraising is still needed to help participants.  

“We’re going to still have challenges and growing pains going forward,” Przymus said. “But TCU is really committed to supporting the diversification of the teacher workforce.”

Unexpected journey to teaching

Garcia, a Maestro student, stumbled into teaching, a profession he truly never considered until later in life. 

After he graduated from Castleberry High School in 1995, he took classes at Tarrant County College and later at the University of Texas at Arlington. 

But he dropped out when jumped at the opportunity to run the family business, a car and accessory shop. Garcia has an entrepreneurial spirit. He has always been an entrepreneur. His first business was selling Mexican candy in elementary school.

“I made a heck of a markup,” Garcia said, with a chuckle.

Eventually, Garcia made his way into the corporate world. Then it came — a pink slip. He had been laid off. While he had a decent severance package, Garcia decided to work as a substitute teacher in Castleberry ISD, where his niece and nephew attended. 

He was hooked. He even accepted an offer to be a long-term substitute teacher for a sixth-grade science class. He stayed for half a school year. Then it happened again: the school needed another long-term sub for seventh-grade science. Garcia could not resist accepting and having the same students again. 

He ran into a problem.

“Money started to get a little thin,” he said. 

Garcia turned back to using entrepreneurial roots and accepted a sales job with a salary far above that of full-time teacher, let alone a sub.

One day, as he worked in his office, Garcia heard some familiar voices. His former students had hunted him down. They missed him and just wanted to see him again. 

“Mr. Garcia?” one student asked. “Are you coming back?”

The money didn’t matter to Garcia. He knew what he had to do. Days later, Garcia resigned and started his journey to become a full-time teacher.

About five years later, Garcia is in striking distance of securing a teaching job. While he initially set out to become a science teacher, Garcia wants to teach Spanish and eventually wants to start and teach a Hispanic heritage class.

He doesn’t plan to stop pursuing higher education. Garcia plans to get a master’s degree and eventually a doctorate. He expects those credentials to help him ensure students see someone like them in a position of power and advocating for their needs.

More importantly, Garcia very well could become that teacher and role model who shows students they can go to college and secure a good job regardless of their identity. 

All because of a man who looks like them, comes from a similar background and with a Spanish last name. 

Mr. Garcia.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.