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Springfield Public Schools increase efforts to recruit, promote teachers of color

MassLive.com logo MassLive.com 4/11/2022 Elizabeth Román, masslive.com
Christopher Sutton, principal of the Rebecca Johnson School in Springfield, checks in on a fourth-grade class. On the left is Christian Colon and on the right is Joshua Lopez. © Don Treeger | dtreeger/masslive.com/TNS Christopher Sutton, principal of the Rebecca Johnson School in Springfield, checks in on a fourth-grade class. On the left is Christian Colon and on the right is Joshua Lopez.

SPRINGFIELD — Becoming a teacher was not a part of the plan for Alba Albo who had an interest in culture and human behavior and planned to study anthropology.

But, after spending some time working with autistic children in the Springfield Public Schools, Albo says she’s found her calling.

“It was supposed to be temporary, but I found that teaching was something that I’m good at. I have a really easy time relating to the students, and I kind of fell in love with the profession because the way kids learn and relate to their environment is fascinating,” said Albo, a paraprofessional at the Edward P. Boland Elementary School on Armory Street.

Christopher Sutton is the principal of the Rebecca Johnson School in Springfield. © Don Treeger | dtreeger/masslive.com/TNS Christopher Sutton is the principal of the Rebecca Johnson School in Springfield.

Shortly before the schools shut down in 2020 due to COVID-19, Albo received an email about a program to help paraprofessionals become teachers.

“I was glad that this would give me the opportunity to be in school with the kids, but also get my degree to become a teacher,” she said. “It’s kind of the perfect opportunity because you get to see how the things you are learning in the program are making a difference in how the kids learn. You get to observe your own progress which is pretty unique.”

In an effort to continue increasing the number of teachers and administrators of color, the Springfield Public Schools enlisted the help of longtime principal Valerie L. Williams, who now serves as the senior administrator of talent and diversity development. Part of her work involves recruiting teachers, especially from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) from all over the country to teach in Springfield.

Alba Albo is a Mexican-American paraprofessional in the Springfield Public Schools who is currently working on her teaching degree through the Elms College Center for Equity in Urban Education. She is shown on the campus of Elms College. © Don Treeger | dtreeger/masslive.com/TNS Alba Albo is a Mexican-American paraprofessional in the Springfield Public Schools who is currently working on her teaching degree through the Elms College Center for Equity in Urban Education. She is shown on the campus of Elms College.

Currently about 68% of Springfield Public School students are Hispanic and about 18% are Black, but only 12.2% of teachers are Black and 10.1% are Latino with 75.2% identifying as white. The numbers are even lower for Asian, mixed race and Native American teachers coming in at 1.6%, .8% and none, respectively.

“One of the goals of this position is to be able to recruit highly qualified, diverse talent to Springfield Public Schools, and we do that through job fairs and college fairs, including (Historically Black Colleges and Universities),” Williams said. “The pandemic has made it so that virtual recruiting is more common and allows us to visit up to three campuses at a time.”

Williams and her team not only talk about the school system, but the city itself and what it has to offer people looking to relocate to Western Massachusetts to take a job in Springfield.

“Every recruiter is giving the same information to try to get candidates interested, but we have an action plan to go with it. Not only do we bring you here and recruit you, we want to keep you here,” she said.

Cindy Escribano, principal of the Gerena Elementary School in Springfield, spends some time wiith first graders at her school. The kids were dressed as different jobs they want to do as they celebrated Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go!".  (Don Treeger / The Republican) 3/4/2022 © Don Treeger | dtreeger/masslive.com/TNS Cindy Escribano, principal of the Gerena Elementary School in Springfield, spends some time wiith first graders at her school. The kids were dressed as different jobs they want to do as they celebrated Dr. Seuss' "Oh the Places You'll Go!". (Don Treeger / The Republican) 3/4/2022

The effort includes helping prospective employees secure affordable homes and apartments, setting them up with mentors when they arrive and checking in with them several times before they make the move.

Beyond the traditional approach to recruitment the district has created a more homegrown approach which involves a paraprofessional-to-teacher pipeline as well as a student-to-teacher pipeline.

“We did a deep dive into the data to assess the pool of candidates that were available to become teachers. We took a look at colleges and universities that typically feed into the Springfield Public Schools, and we saw that wasn’t going to get us where we wanted to be in terms of diversity,” explained Melissa Shea, chief of human resources for the district.

Now, several partnerships actively help students and paraprofessionals become licensed teachers in the Springfield Public Schools. There is the Reach to Teach program at Westfield State University which offers incentives and additional financial and academic support to Springfield students who want to become teachers in the district.

There is an early childhood education initiative at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy where students who pass WorkKeys, a proficiency certificate, can become paraprofessionals upon graduation while they also pursue their teaching degrees.

The 180 Day program with the University of Massachusetts Amherst gives students the opportunity to intern in the district and be hired as teachers upon receiving their license.

Through partnerships with Springfield and Elms colleges the district is offering paraprofessionals the opportunity to earn their teaching licenses while maintaining their jobs.

In an effort targeting the lack of diverse teaching staff in schools across the region Elms College created the Cynthia A. Lyons Center for Equity in Urban Education. The center not only works with aspiring teachers of color but also with any teacher who wants to educate students through a cultural lens and understanding, said Elms president Harry E. Dumay.

“The statistics are consistent with what we know about the area in terms of the number of teachers and administrators of color not being consistent with the composition of the student body at the school, and we have confirmed that with all of the school districts in the area including Springfield, Holyoke and Chicopee,” Dumay said.

“Knowing Elms College’s strength in preparing educators in general, something we have been doing for more than a century, but also seeing that we didn’t have a targeted program to help address this specific problem in the region it gave us the impetus to create this center dedicated specifically to that,” he added.

Tyra Good is the faculty director at the Elms center. With a doctorate in education and more than 10 years experience teaching education, Good was most recently an assistant professor of practice in education at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Much of her career has been focused on working with teachers who teach students in underserved communities.

“We are looking holistically at the population, and one of the unique things about the center is that we know that within many of the school districts there are a lot Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) staff who are working in the schools in different capacities, just not as the classroom teachers,” Good said. “We see a disproportionate amount mainly as paraprofessionals. These are people that have connections with the student, with the parents and they live in the community. So one of the first recruitment angles of diversifying the teaching staff was to really target that population to see if we can get them to be certified classroom teachers.”

Currently there are 36 people enrolled in the program, and Albo, who is Mexican-American, is among them.

The Elms center is acutely aware of the struggle that many paraprofessionals face when it comes to pursuing higher education, Albo said. The challenges can include family responsibilities, maintaining a full-time job or being an older, non-traditional student.

“It really made everything accessible because I don’t see how I would have gotten this done any other way,” Albo said. “I think it’s the same for a lot of people in the center. There are so many wonderful people who have so much to offer, and they otherwise would be unable to because they would be stuck.”

Originally from El Paso, Texas Albo said it was an adjustment to come to an area where the majority of the staff is not Hispanic, especially in a school system where the majority of students identify as Latino.

“The students (in El Paso) have many teachers they can look to and relate to. Here, we have wonderful teachers, but most of them don’t match culturally with the population they are teaching. Sometimes it can be a challenge for the students,” Albo said. “It’s hard when we don’t really look from a cultural lens at our students. Things are done a certain way in different cultures and there can be a friction there, but the center helps so much to temper that down. Teachers are learning how to make the students feel safe, how to make them feel that they are in an environment where they can come to learn and not be worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.”

A growing number of people of color are looking to go beyond teaching and move into assistant principal, principal and other administrative jobs.

When superintendent Daniel P. Warwick took over the district in 2012 the percentage of Black principals was 18.8%, now that number is 33.6%. In 2012 there were 7.5% Latino principals, and, while that number is now 6.5%, the presence of Latino assistant principals has risen from 7.7% to 17.7%, many of whom are in line to become principals in the next few years.

“We have been adding career pathways for teachers to gain some leadership experience before they become administrators so that it’s not as daunting,” Shea said. “We have negotiated with the teachers’ union to add positions like instructional leadership specialists and effective educator coaches to give teachers that necessary leadership experience.”

Williams said there is a lot of interest in assistant principal and principal positions within the district.

“There is a huge interest from teachers wanting to pursue a leadership path,” she said. “We currently have a waiting list for programs.”

The district has an inspiring leaders program which pairs staff members who are currently in leadership roles with those aspiring to become administrators.

“District personnel work with teachers on curriculum and principal competencies. They are given an example of a school to look at and see how they would manage the school, use data to inform instruction, look at budget,” Williams said. “They are trained in those aspects so they can gain the experience necessary to be successful in that role.”

While there is a growing interest from diverse teachers wanting to become administrators now, the road to leadership was a lot lonelier for Rebecca Johnson Elementary School principal Christopher Sutton.

Originally from Mississippi Sutton moved with his family to Connecticut and had family in Springfield where he eventually came to work as a teacher 27 years ago.

As a Black, male educator Sutton understands the importance of having teachers and leaders who look and sound like their students.

“I have never had a Black male teacher. My first male teacher was my gym teacher and my coach. Throughout my entire academic career even in college I have never had a Black male educator,” he said. “When you think about those dynamics it hits home how important it is to become that mentor, that example. Letting other Black and brown males understand that these things are possible. And really the message from me is don’t limit yourself to being a teacher, become a doctor, become a scientist, become a congressman, become the president. Open as many doors as you possibly can. I want to be a part of their journey to help them get those opportunities and open those doors.”

At Rebecca Johnson half of the staff are people of color.

“We try to make sure we interview and get candidates that look like, sound like, and represent the cohort of students that we serve,” Sutton said. “That is something that is very important to me, and I believe it’s important to the district also. We make a conscious effort to hire qualified candidates that are of color.”

Sutton said it’s about providing an environment where students can come to school and focus on learning.

“Students want to come to a place where they feel welcome, where they feel safe. Sometimes in our world what makes them feel safe is someone that looks like them,” Sutton said. “From that lens it is very important for students to feel understood, to know that there isn’t a language barrier, that the language they maybe speak at home we also speak here. That their teacher or their principal grew up like them, gets them.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit masslive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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