GLENDALE, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -- It's just an average day at Copper Canyon High School in Glendale.

But the woman standing in front of a senior math class is not the average teacher.

[SPECIAL SECTION: State of Our Schools: The search for solutions]

The fact that Sandra Wellwerts teaches calculus isn't what makes her an exception. It's her background that makes her somewhat of a statistical anomaly in the Arizona classroom.

"Growing up, English was my second language, so I had to learn how to speak English," Wellwerts said. "I remember being in Spanish-only classes in kindergarten and first grade and learning how to speak English."

Her mother is from El Salvador, and her father from Guatemala, which makes her one of Arizona's few Hispanic teachers.

Of Arizona's 1.1-million public school students, Hispanics now represent the largest group of kids at 45%.

At the same time, Hispanics make up 12% of the teachers in the classroom, according to the Arizona Department of Education.

[WATCH: Diversity among teachers matters. Here's why.]

For the students of color in Wellwerts' class, seeing a teacher who looks like them makes a world of difference.

"It lets me look up to the person and that if they can make it, then I can, too," Alexandra Moran said.

Studies suggest teachers of color can improve academic outcomes for students of color, like reducing dropout rates.

Other studies suggest academic performance improves because of minority teachers setting higher standards for their minority students.

"I just have high expectations for them; I expect them to try their best," Wellwerts said.

There is also the fact that students enjoy having someone to whom they can relate on a personal level, who can understand and share their experiences.

"I do think I can relate to them because I know where they are coming from and I can picture where they're coming from pretty much," Wellwerts said.

So, what can be done diversify the teaching ranks? Overall, the state is trying to recruit more teachers.

[RELATED: Recruiting teachers, family involvement top challenges for AZ schools]

[AND THIS: One year after Red for Ed, teacher shortage plagues AZ schools]

The governor did approve a 20% teacher pay raise, which is still being phased in.

Wellwerts says the pay hike isn't good enough.

"I think pay is a big thing. I also that being able to see the difference you can make in students -- because if you grow up with similar backgrounds as them and you got out of that situation, out of those struggles -- helping them is one way to give back to the community. So, being able to show that teachers can do that is going to be very helpful."

[SPECIAL SECTION: State of Our Schools: The search for solutions]

 

 


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