New Normandale program strives to increase teachers of color in special education

Submitted photo (l-r) Jim Mackinnon, Kimberly Hernandez Xochipiltecalt, Program Coordinator Kelsey Johnson, Tania Mejia, and Leticia Alvarez

Minnesota faces a dire situation regarding the lack of special education teachers. To address the needs, Normandale Community College has launched the SpedUp Program, an educational pipeline for prospective special education teachers, in particular teachers of color.

“SpedUP will confront the educational equity gaps in K-12 classrooms by addressing disparities in the composition of the special education workforce,” said SpedUp Program Coordinator Kelsey Johnson. “This program is particularly appropriate for working adults who already have full lives.”

The program is designed to recruit and support BIPOC students as they pursue their first two years of a special education degree. It is a cohort model that offers a full academic scholarship (tuition and books); professional development activities; connection to campus resources; and academic advising to ensure transfer into a bachelor’s degree program for special education.

“It’s hard working in a system that hasn’t been intentionally built for the success of people who look like me or are from underserved backgrounds,” said Leticia Alvarez, a paraprofessional in Bloomington Public Schools and a student in the first SpedUP cohort. “Working in the public school system, the funding is what it is, and this is a way to add more tools to my toolbox and get paid more.”

Normandale is no stranger to working to champion diversity in teaching, having successfully launched a program in the fall of 2021 that recruits and supports Black, African American, and African men into elementary and secondary education pathways (Sirtify).

Normandale is also one of a handful of two-year colleges in Twin Cities to offer Transfer Pathways in elementary education and special education, which allows students to transfer to Minnesota State universities where the programs are offered.

Normandale Community College President Joyce Ester believes there is an opportunity for Normandale to do its part in eliminating achievement gaps by providing pathways for BIPOC students to attain a special education degree. “We have a very strong education program, and we feel like this is a great way for us to recruit and support BIPOC students in a field that helps change lives in our community,” said Dr. Ester.

“There have been a number of studies that indicate when students are taught and supported by people who they feel represent them there are higher success rates. SpedUp is the right opportunity at the right time for a very important field for communities across the state.”

As a program coordinator, Johnson has spent the last six months actively recruiting
prospective students, enrolling an inaugural group of students for the first semester of the

In the fall 2023 semester, there will be an opportunity for 10 students to participate in the
SpedUP program. The program offers full-tuition scholarships for students of color
provided by a grant and aims to ensure students’ success at Normandale and beyond.

“For me, one of the barriers in coming to school was funding,” stated Alvarez, “and so when
the SpedUP program became available I was like, wow! It’s right here in my community, and
the tuition and books are covered. That’s so many barriers gone, and that’s what led me

To learn more about SpedUp, contact Kelsey Johnson at or visit

Source: Normandale Community College

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