BLOOMINGTON, Minn. (FOX 9) - As a paraprofessional at Bloomington Kennedy High School, Leticia Alvarez already helps special education students with social and emotional learning.
But soon she hopes she'll be able to help them even more.
"I love it. It's opening doors for me. As a paraprofessional, there are limits set on me. So I want to be in more spaces where I can make change," said Alvarez.
The 33-year-old is one of a handful of students who are part of a new program at Normandale Community College aimed at increasing representation in special education.
The SpedUp Program recruits and supports BIPOC students as they pursue the first two years of a special education degree, by covering the cost of tuition and books, connecting them to campus resources, and providing proactive academic advising.
"Minnesota has two teacher shortage areas. One is the special ed licensure. The other is teachers of color in all areas. The vision of the program is to confront that equity gap by adjusting the special education workforce," said SpedUP Program Coordinator Kelsey Johnson.
Jim MacKinnon, who is originally from Guatemala, graduated from Bloomington Jefferson last spring.
He says as a former special education student, he wants to become a special education teacher to prevent young people in similar situations from going down the wrong path in life, like many thought he would.
"Hopefully succeeding down the road and having my students know that I made it out and they can too, is really, really big," said MacKinnon.
Alvarez says in Minnesota, students of color are more likely to end up in special education than their white counterparts, and having a teacher who looks like them could make all the difference to their success in the classroom.
"The lens with which people are writing I.E.Ps, grading students, providing an education, matters. You can teach equity all you want. If you don't come from it, don't live it, you don't know it," said Alvarez.