UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt speaks Monday at Davies Center during a meeting of the Education and Economic Development subcommittee of the Wisconsin Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities.

EAU CLAIRE — UW-Eau Claire must continue to attract more students of color and serve them better as western Wisconsin becomes increasingly diverse, Chancellor James Schmidt told a legislative task force this week.

Speaking Monday in Davies Center to the Education and Economic Development subcommittee of the Wisconsin Speaker’s Task Force on Racial Disparities, Schmidt said the university hopes to close the opportunity gap for students of color through its work to better prepare new teachers and efforts to improve the university’s support services for minority students.

“Education truly is the key to unlocking opportunity,” Schmidt said.

The task force was formed by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, after the Aug. 23 shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a Kenosha police officer, and the university detailed Monday’s meeting in a news release.

Schmidt told the task force that racial disparities are a “vicious cycle of substandard opportunities in K-12 and undergraduate settings that perpetually disadvantage students of color” and said universities must consider equity — “whether all students, regardless of race, have the tools needed to seize an opportunity” — to break the cycle.

Carmen Manning, dean of UW-Eau Claire’s College of Education and Human Sciences, pointed out to the task force that less than 5% of Wisconsin’s teachers are teachers of color while approximately 29% of students are students of color. She said teachers of color increase the academic performance of students of color and those benefits extend to social-emotional and non-academic arenas.

“Not only is it important that students have credentialed and experienced teachers, but who that teacher is matters, especially to students of color,” Manning said.

Universities need support to focus on recruiting and preparing teachers of color and teachers in certain geographic areas, she said, encouraging policy makers to consider funding for students of color during their training to become teachers with mentoring, academic and peer support, preparation for licensing exams and help with job placement.

To support more high-quality teachers, especially teachers of color, Manning said state policymakers could expand grant or loan forgiveness programs to encourage more students to enter the teaching profession, address teacher compensation and provide financial support to teacher preparation programs to recruit and retain students of color.

Lower enrollment of students of color in teaching programs may be a result of higher student loan debt and lower salaries, Manning said. Teacher salaries are about 20% less than salaries for people with college degrees in other fields, and that gap grows to 30% by mid-career.

Schmidt also said universities must continue advocating for policies that help teachers and the education system improve, including showing students of color that the teaching profession is a possibility.

“For young children of color to believe in their own limitless potential, they must see role models who had good experiences with higher education, and that means doing right by our current students,” Schmidt said.

About 11% of UW-Eau Claire’s more than 10,000 students are students of color, while about 24% of its faculty are non-white.

Demetrius Smith, director of Blugold Beginnings and special assistant to the vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire, told the task force that student support services are a key for freshmen, especially students of color, who enter the university underprepared for the experience. Support services help develop skills that can help students excel both inside and outside the classroom.

“Experiencing a sense of belonging can be the difference between graduating and not graduating,” Smith said.

Finances remain an issue of need for university students of color, Smith said, adding that loan forgiveness, scholarships and grants could help students of color in need of assistance to remain in school.

Other needs, according to Smith, are funding for universities to develop initiatives for students of color and incentives to further diversify faculty and staff positions.

UW-Eau Claire hosted the subcommittee hearing with safety protocols in place for presenters, committee members and the students and staff who use Davies Center.