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Linda Borg Providence Journal | USA TODAY NETWORK

Ligia Dos Reis never imagined that someone with her life story — an immigrant from Cape Verde who never attended high school — would one day be teaching children with special needs.

“I am an immigrant and I know the struggle,” the 58-year-old said. “The Spanish kids, they see me in the hallway and they say, ‘Miss Ligia, Miss Ligia!’ Their joy, that is beyond money.”

The program, called TA to BA, represents a partnership between College Unbound and the Equity Institute, a local education nonprofit that works with schools to create anti-racist strategies.

College Unbound, the brainchild of Met School founder Dennis Littky, recruits teaching assistants from racially and economically diverse backgrounds, provides them with the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s degrees in two to three years and then helps them to gain their teacher certification.

About 90% of Providence students are students of color but only 20% of teachers are Black or brown

Students in Rhode Island’s urban districts often do not see teachers who look like them or who have similar life experiences. In Providence, approximately 90% of students are students of color yet only 20% of the teachers are Black or brown.

The TA to BA program tries to break down the barriers that

“Now, instead of victimizing myself, I notice how strong I am. It’s a vibe, a lot like a therapy session.”

Judiean Polanco

Program participant

Central High School teacher Ligia Dos Reis in her classroom


stymie teaching assistants from completing their undergraduate degrees. Classes are offered online. Once a week, cohorts of aspiring teachers meet, share a meal, and compare notes about their classwork and their struggles.

“We’re trying to make teaching more accessible to folks from under-represented communities,” said Carlon Howard, chief impact officer for the Equity Institute. “These are people who can make fantastic teachers because they have experience working with schools. They are connected to the people in their neighborhoods.”

Research has shown that educators of color have a significant impact on their students, improving student attendance, math and reading scores, graduation rates and college aspirations.

Judiean Polanco, who is on the cusp of getting her bachelor’s degree, said she had tried taking college classes but College Unbound was the first time she felt like she belonged to a family of like-minded people.

“I had never been part of a team, never had a job for too long,” the 24-yearold mother of three said. “Then I got my cohort. When I used to talk in public, my self-esteem was on the ground. Now, instead of victimizing myself, I notice how strong I am. It’s a vibe, a lot like a therapy session.”

Born in New York City, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, Polanco never thought she had what it took to attend college.

'If you come from nothing, you have nothing to put down.'

“If you come from nothing,” she said, referring to college applications. “You have nothing to put down.” College Unbound was a revelation. Math came alive because teachers and classmates took the time to unravel its mysteries. Her six years at Veazie Street Elementary School in Providence was not only valued but rewarded.

Unlike most traditional colleges, this program gives students credit for their real-world experience in the classroom. Students compile a portfolio of their work experience along with validation by employees or other teachers, which is evaluated by the program’s faculty. This year, College Unbound offers free tuition paid for with $500,000 in scholarships from the Rhode Island Department of Labor and Training, Howard said.

However, students do have to pay for their teaching certificate. The program has an agreement with Western Governors University, an online college. TA to BA will cover any remaining tuition once scholarships and Pell grants are expended.

College Unbound hopes to take the TA to BA program national. It opened in Philadelphia this fall with 35 students.

Now that she has experienced success, Polanco is determined to set her expectations high, hoping to become a principal one day.

“College Unbound was a lifesaver,” she said. “Carlon Howard told me his mother used to put him in front of the mirror and tell him he could be whatever he wanted. That’s what I do with my kids. That empty place in my heart, I don’t see it anymore.”

Linda Borg covers education for The Journal.

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