Receiving a Marin Teachers of Color (TOC) scholarship is giving La Donna Clark ’03 an opportunity to return to Dominican University of California. It also represents a second chance for La Donna in more ways than one and the timing could not have been more perfect.
“I’ve been clean and sober for 28 years and that’s a blessing. And then getting cancer and beating it and feeling so alive. And then having this opportunity to have this scholarship?! I need to finish this,” La Donna says. “I feel like God doesn’t make mistakes. He puts you right where you need to be when you need to be there. It’s always been a goal of mine to get my teacher’s certificate.”
The Marin Teachers of Color Scholarship was created to address the shortage of teachers of color working in Marin County’s public schools, and funded by a $450,000 contribution in 2019 by anonymous donors. La Donna is one of nine TOC scholarship recipients who received the award this academic year and she aims to join the 14 students who have completed their teaching credential since Dominican started offering the TOC scholarship. The Novato Unified School District and San Rafael School District are the top employers of Dominican TOC graduates and Dominican offers the Marin Public School Employees Tuition Discount that offers a 25% tuition discount for employees of the public schools
In addition, Dominican is now offering the East Bay Teachers of Color Scholarship, which was developed by donors who were originally asked for a $50,000 donation to the program yet gave $100,000. It is a standalone program that will be similar to the Marin TOC Scholarship program.
According to Marin Promise Partnership, 43 percent of students in Marin County are people of color, but only one out of 10 of their teachers are people of color. Dominican’s Marin Teachers of Color Scholarship program was created to benefit underrepresented students, with preference given to African American and/or Latinx students who intend to teach, or currently teach, at a Marin County public school. They must be working on the Teaching Credential portion of the MS Education degree or taking courses towards their Teaching Credential as part of their Bachelor’s Degree in Education Studies.
“We are honored to support La Donna with the Marin Teachers of Color Scholarship and the Marin Public School Employee Discount,” says Julie Grellas, Director of School and Community Partnerships in the Department of Education in the School of Liberal Arts and Education. “La Donna is a pillar of our community who has over 20 years of public service in local schools and non-profit organizations. Every student deserves a teacher who is as dedicated, passionate, and experienced as La Donna.”
Yet few teachers have experienced the highs and lows that La Donna has. She overcame drug addiction and, inspired by her son’s learning disabilities in kindergarten in 1998, decided to resume her career goal of teaching.
“I felt like I needed to be closer to him at school. He needed me,” says La Donna, who was then working as a medical assistant at Kaiser Permanente but applied for a Teacher Assistant (TA) position at Bayside Martin Luther King Jr. Academy. “At that point I fell in love with the classroom.”
GRADUATE PROGRAMS AT DOMINICAN
That led La Donna, a single mother of three, to Dominican for her first attempt to get her teaching credential, which was a challenging proposition given she discovered later in life she had her own learning disability. Coming from a family of 13, La Donna relied on the support of her siblings – including her identical twin La Tanya Wiggins who shared childcare responsibilities with her – to attend classes at Dominican and receive a bachelor’s degree at Commencement.
“The highlight of being at Dominican was just persevering through all of that, getting to the other side,” La Donna says.
Though she faced barriers in acquiring her full-time teaching credential, La Donna continued to work as a TA and substitute teacher and make a difference in the community. However, she did not anticipate that a two-year battle with colon cancer and then a pandemic would interrupt her journey on her career path to teach full-time. She got innovative.
When in-person classes resumed, La Donna, a longtime fan of the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, would purposely come to class dressed from head to toe in Warriors’ attire – including blue-and-gold spangled crocs – in order to keep her students super focused. Warriors Wednesdays have become a ritual.
“I would normally wear this to a Warriors game, not to work,” La Donna explains. “But after COVID I had to get their attention.”
Ultimately, La Donna decided she wanted to become a full-time Transitional Kindergarten (TK) teacher and she needed her teaching credential to do that. The best way she knew how to do that was to return to Dominican.
“The classes were small. It was intimate. The teachers really cared that you were successful,” she remembered. “I got a lot of individual attention.”
This time she got a scholarship. Dr. Itoco Garcia, superintendent of the Sausalito Marin City School District, was a strong advocate for La Donna to pursue her teaching credential and Julie Grellas was, in La Donna’s words, “Draymond Green to my Steph Curry” in reconnecting her with Dominican and directing and guiding her to apply for the Teachers of Color Scholarship that solved her financial dilemma to finish what she had started.
“It’s always been something that I wanted to do and now the other piece of the puzzle is there,” she says.
La Donna, who recently got married, works during the day with the Sausalito Marin City School District then drives to Dominican for classes. She is taking 18 units, and on Wednesdays her class schedule stretches from 4:10 to 9:30 p.m. She is on track to graduate in May 2023 and then complete the California Subject Examinations for Teachers (CSET).
She is confident she is in the right place. Students in Dominican’s Teacher Preparation Program develop a broad range of knowledge, critical-thinking, problem-solving, and communication skills. Through small class sizes and individualized attention, students have the opportunity to explore pedagogy and teaching strategies that address the needs of diverse learners, including English learners and students with special needs and gifts. Dominican provides full-time and part-time course offerings through the Education Master's program. Supervised student teaching and internship options in the Bay Area are also part of this immersive program.
“I’m ready and I’m more prepared. I’ve got the experience under my belt. I’m older. I’m wiser,” La Donna says. “It feels different this time. I don’t feel so scared. I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times. I feel like it’s mine. I have ownership of the situation.”
The short-term goal for La Donna is to be a full-time TK teacher. The long-term goal is to earn her doctorate in education. Given her life’s journey, La Donna is as determined as ever.
“The moral of my story is to never give up. Never give up. And be early and on time. That’s my new motto,” La Donna says, smiling. “I’m humble. I’m grateful. I feel so blessed.”