Holyoke, Amherst schools get grants to diversify teaching staffs

  • Joseph Metcalf Elementary School fourth graders Jeyden Luna Burgos, left, and Chris Davila, use headphones to access a Spanish language program while their teacher, Eliza Maugh-Pugh, in background, leads a geography lesson in Spanish at the exclusively dual language school in Holyoke on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/16/2019 2:38:39 PM

Two local school districts are receiving part of $1.8 million in state and federal money to support enhancing the diversity of their classroom teachers through both recruitment and retention.

Holyoke public schools and the Amherst-Pelham Regional School were both awarded grants through the District Teacher Diversification Pilot program, which will benefit about 500 individuals in 20 districts across the state.

At $367,283, Holyoke received the most money of any school district in the state to “engage in thoughtful approaches intended to increase the number of effective and diverse teachers in their schools.”

“This is a great opportunity to attempt to diversify the workforce,” said Kelly Curran, management of recruitment for the Holyoke schools, whose student population is more than 80% Hispanic.

Curran said that diversifying the workforce has often run into obstacles that this funding is designed to counter. “Having this support is a blessing to be able to remove those barriers,” Curran said.

Holyoke’s strategies will focus on three areas.

First, the district will have 17 scholarships available to people to participate in Teach Western Mass, an accelerated teacher licensure program that focuses on those wanting to instruct English Language Learners and teach special education and middle school math.

Second, Holyoke will be able to offer recruitment bonuses for teachers relocating to the city or making a commitment to teach in the city’s schools.

Third, a partnership is being created with the University of Massachusetts that will make classes, likely for credit, available to some Holyoke students, as well as an after-school Future Teachers Club that will promote having students pursue teaching careers.

Curran said the ongoing support — Holyoke got $340,980 last year — is helping increase the number of teachers of color, which rose from 13% in 2015, when the schools were placed into state receivership, to 23% this year.

For Amherst, the $90,360 coming from the grant will also support ongoing efforts to make sure teachers better reflect the population of students. In 2019, almost 27% of the 267 staff identified as persons of color, an increase from two years ago when just under 20% of the 261 staff were persons of color.

Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent of Diversity, Equity & Human Resources, told the Amherst Regional School Committee last week that the grant will be a boon for 10 paraeducators who are interested in becoming full teachers, giving them support and tuition payments, and for assisting three individuals with provisional licenses to move to professional status. Five aides are already moving on to become fully licensed teachers.

In addition, the grant money will help improve the culture in the schools with the grant money, which Cunningham said includes strengthening instructional practices so that educators are better equipped to respond to the diverse needs of students and providing an inclusive environment for staff and students.

A video course for teacher licensure, also known as the Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure, or MTEL, will be produced, Cunningham said.

“We are looking for someone to help us with the MTEL preparation because we know and understand that a lot of our staff members fail the MTEL multiple times while trying to get licenses,” Cunningham said.

Superintendent Michael Morris said MTEL is often seen as a barrier to diversification of staff at schools across the state, an issue he is familiar with from being on the Racial Imbalance Advisory Council for the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education since late 2017.

That council provides advice “on matters pertinent to the integration of students in our public schools and improved student achievement for all in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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