Education Sections

Reach to Teach

Springfield Takes a Bold Step to Bring Diversity to the Classroom

Daniel Warwick

Daniel Warwick says Reach to Teach is an imaginative effort to address the national problem of diversity in the classroom.

Like most urban centers in this country, Springfield struggles to have its teaching force match — or even approach — the diversity and demographic nature of the students sitting in the classrooms.

But unlike most of those cities, it is taking a unique, aggressive, and highly imaginative approach to addressing that critical issue.

It’s called Reach to Teach, an ambitious partnership with Westfield State University, renowned for its education programs throughout its 175-year history (in fact, it was once known as Westfield Teachers College). The program, launched in February, seeks to recruit, mentor, and train Springfield middle- and high-school students of color and eventually return them to the classrooms of their youth through guaranteed employment in the city’s public schools.

One of its primary goals is to attract people to high-need areas, such as math, science, and special education, said Springfield School Superintendent Dan Warwick, who called this a “grow-our-own” initiative. It’s a model he believes is unique, and one that comes complete with myriad benefits for Springfield schools and their future students, the young people recruited into the program, and Westfield State.

“Rather than trying to recruit minority teachers from elsewhere, when there’s a shortage everywhere, this was a way to grow our own kids and get them to come back to Springfield,” said Warwick, himself a product of Westfield State’s education program, adding that research has shown that, when students have teachers who come from the same racial and cultural background they do, they perform better academically, have higher self-esteem, stay in school longer, and graduate at higher rates. “If they do come back, they’re more likely to live in the city, and they’re more likely to stay in the profession.”

Cheryl Stanley, dean of Education at Westfield State and a classmate of Warwick’s at Springfield’s Cathedral High School, agreed, and noted that creating more diversity in the teaching ranks is now a national priority.

“We are now seeing this as a call to duty — for all institutions to start thinking about recruitment strategies to increase the diversity in our teacher-preparation programs,” she said, adding that WSU has been addressing this issue in various ways for years. “And it results from the increased number of students of color in the public schools.

“We’re being asked to be creative in our responses to this problem,” she went on, “and part of doing that is establishing partnerships with school districts, and the best school districts to partner with are in the urban settings because this is where these students are.”

Here’s how Reach to Teach works. The initiative will provide up to 20 eligible students from Springfield with automatic admission to Westfield State, technical support on the application process, available scholarship funding during junior and senior years, and, most importantly, a guaranteed job with mentorship for one year post-graduation in the Springfield Public School (SPS) system.

There are no firm quantitative goals for this initiative, said Warwick and Springfield’s assistant superintendent, Lydia Martinez, only a determined quest for “progress” in the current number of minorities among the ranks of faculty and staff members, and they believe this can certainly be accomplished.

But there is more to it than just diversity, said Martinez, a Springfield native who graduated from Westfield State’s Urban Education program and embodies the main thrust of Reach to Teach. She said SPS teachers who grew up in Springfield share more than a birthplace with their students.

“This program also helps us with the cultural piece, not just in terms of diversity of race,” she explained. “Through Reach to Teach, we can have more teachers who grew up in Springfield and are a part of the fabric of the city here, having come up through the system. It’s coming back home to what you know and helping the next cadre get to where they need to be.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Reach to Teach initiative and its potential to change the landscape in Springfield’s schools.

New School of Thought

Springfield Public School enrollment numbers underscore the need for more teachers of color.

Indeed, 88% of the system’s students are non-white, while only 11% of SPS faculty and staff are non-white, according to 2013-14 enrollment data published by the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Similarly, at Westfield State for the 2014-15 year, only 11% of undergraduate, post-baccalaureate-certificate, and graduate-education-licensure candidates combined are non-white.

Reach to Teach was conceived to address this disparity, thus benefiting both entities, said Warwick, adding that discussions between the parties began last year and ended with a memorandum of understanding inked early this year.

In many ways, Reach to Teach is an effort to take an already-strong relationship between the Springfield Public Schools and Westfield State to an even higher level. Indeed, for decades now, WSU has been the lead source of teachers for not only the Springfield system but many others in the region, said Warwick, adding that the entities have partnered in many ways over the years, including a program that brings WSU students into the city’s schools for experience in an urban setting.

“This was a natural affiliation — Westfield State has a history of a great educational program, and that’s still true today,” he said, adding that Reach to Teach will tap into that relationship to address what has been a persistent and nagging challenge.

Indeed, as he talked about the need to recruit more people of color to the teaching ranks in the Springfield Public Schools, Warwick stressed repeatedly that the problem is hardly unique to Springfield.

“Like all other urban districts, we face a huge challenge recruiting and retaining a diverse, highly qualified staff,” he explained. “If you look at most school systems in the country, especially urban districts, there’s an under-representation with regard to minority teachers — and they’re all trying to do something about it.”

Thus, every major urban center is working hard to recruit minorities to its classrooms, he went on, adding that they are generally fishing in the same pond — schools with both education programs and high percentages of minority students.

“Every other major urban center is trying to do the same thing,” he said. “And they’re probably going to the African-American colleges, to Puerto Rico, and other areas; they’re all recruiting from the same places, and the competition for qualified candidates is intense.”

Cheryl Stanley, seen here with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno

Cheryl Stanley, seen here with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, says the key to achieving diversity in the classroom is partnerships with urban school districts like Springfield’s.

In a way, Reach to Teach is creating a new pond, said those involved with the initiative, although there are still plenty of challenges to overcome when it comes to achieving the desired diversity at the front of the classroom.

Indeed, there are many reasons why there is a distinct shortage of minorities in teaching roles, ranging from the difficulty with attaining a degree and becoming certified to teach both a specific subject and at a specific level, to the comparatively low rate of pay in this field, at least when compared to other professions requiring college degrees.

“The low rate of pay to start is certainly an issue, and there’s also the testing protocol that kids have to go through now to qualify as education majors — there are a lot of barriers to people pursuing education today, said Warwick, adding that Reach to Teach will encourage young students to pursue that profession and then mentor them and assist with clearing the many hurdles involved.

“The problem with the minority teacher shortage is that not enough minority students are going on to college to pursue education,” he explained. “We want to really encourage young people to enter this field, so Westfield State has put together a framework to offer them assistance to get through college, and our head of guidance is providing some assistance in high school, encouraging them to pursue this.

“And we said that, if we can bring our kids back, and they complete Westfield State’s program, we’d be glad to hire them,” he went on.

This guarantee of employment is one of the program’s best selling points, said Martinez, adding that the process by which Springfield will seek to grow its own will begin with recruitment of students while they’re still in middle school, although for the first few years the targets will obviously be high-school students and those already in the workforce seeking a possible career change.

“We want to identify potential candidates as early as possible, ideally in middle school,” she explained, adding that, by doing so, the SPS can mentor the students and help prepare them for the road ahead through participation in the Future Teachers of America program and other initiatives. “We want to teach them as they enter high school so we can mentor them, track them, help them get to Westfield State University, and then help them come back.”

While those involved hoped to have some students enrolled in the education program at WSU this fall, they expect the initiative to really get rolling in the fall of 2016.

There is a need for minority teachers across the board, said Stanley, but the need is especially acute in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), mostly because of the rugged path to attaining licensure to teach those subjects, the perception that such positions are beyond one’s grasp, and the immense competition across several fields for students who develop such aptitudes.

“When you think about the best and the brightest, we’re competing against many other occupations for those individuals,” she told BusinessWest. “This includes corporations that can offer much more in terms of dollar signs. So the world has really opened up, and all fields are looking for people of color, and they have choices. And teaching doesn’t appear to be as rewarding as other fields where you might get a bonus up front, a full scholarship right up front, and a guaranteed job right up front. That’s what teaching is competing against.”

Despite all that competition, Stanley said the Reach to Teach initiative is already garnering some interest within the community — primarily because of the guaranteed jobs for students who successfully complete the program — and noted that some potential career changers are making inquiries.

Learning Curves

As he talked about the demographic disparity in the SPS between the students and those teaching them, Warwick said he didn’t have any hard numbers when it came to percentage of teachers who would be considered minorities.

“Let’s just say it’s not what we want it to be and we need it to be,” he told BusinessWest. “I think inroads have been made, but there’s certainly more opportunity there.”

To realize those opportunities, something bold and imaginative is needed, he went on, adding that Reach to Teach certainly fits that description.

If it succeeds as planned, other urban centers may have an effective blueprint to follow. Meanwhile, and more importantly, Springfield will have a base of faculty and staff far more reflective of the community being served.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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