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Bringing diversity to the local teaching workforce

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, talks with students, from left, Jorge Figueroa, Jorge Marcano and Angelina Valentin during lunch. Bermudez is getting her master’s degree in teaching from Mount Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, talks with students, left, Jorge Figueroa, walking by, Angelina Valentin and Manny Martinez, during lunch. Bermudez receives support from Paradigm Shift in getting her master’s in teaching from Mt. Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, talks with students, left, Jorge Figueroa, Angelina Valentin and Manny Martinez, during lunch. Bermudez receives support from Paradigm Shift in getting her master’s in teaching from Mt. Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, works with Juan Salamanca during class. Bermudez receives support from Paradigm Shift in getting her master’s in teaching from Mt. Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, talks with student Arthur Lundrigan during lunch. Bermudez receives support from Paradigm Shift in getting her master’s in teaching from Mt. Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, works with, from left to right, Jimmy Serrano, Jan Carlos Saavedra and Juan Salamanca during class. Bermudez receives support from Paradigm Shift in getting her master’s in teaching from Mt. Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jazebel Bermudez, a teacher at Holyoke High School Dean Campus, works with Jimmy Serrano, Jan Carlos Saavedra and Juan Salamanca during class. Bermudez receives support from Paradigm Shift in getting her master’s in teaching from Mt. Holyoke College. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS



Staff Writer
Saturday, January 11, 2020

Growing up, Jazebel Bermudez wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. “Teacher was never on my mind,” she said.

When she was in the Holyoke Public Schools, her teachers didn’t look like her. She is Puerto Rican, and “all my teachers were white,” she said.

She later went to Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy where she remembers seeing two Hispanic teachers. “I was like, ‘There are Hispanic teachers? What do they teach?’” Seeing teachers who looked like her helped show her that becoming a teacher was an option, she said.

Now, Bermudez is getting her master’s in teaching at Mount Holyoke College and expects to graduate this spring, and she also teaches English as a second language (ESL) at Holyoke High School’s Dean Campus under a waiver that temporarily allows her to teach without her master’s degree. Previously, she was a kindergarten paraeducator in the Springfield Public Schools.

In her master’s work, she gets support from Paradigm Shift, a coalition of groups that aims to diversify the teacher workforce in the Valley by supporting black and Latinx paraeducators in getting their master’s degrees and teaching licenses.

Paradigm Shift, run out of the Five College Consortium, works with paraeducators in Amherst-Pelham Regional, Holyoke and Springfield public schools who are getting their master’s degrees at Mount Holyoke College or Springfield College.

“In our region, those three districts are the ones where there is the biggest mismatch between who the kids who are in the schools and who the teachers are,” said Marla Solomon, director of Partnership Programs at the Five College Consortium and Paradigm Shift project director.

In the Holyoke Public School district, for example, 86 percent of students are people of color, while about 66 percent of the teaching staff is white, according to enrollment data from the 2018-2019 school year kept by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In Springfield, about 90 percent of the students and 32 percent of the teaching staff are people of color, data shows, and in Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools 42 percent of students and 27 percent of the teaching staff are people of color.

It’s not just an issue in western Massachusetts — it’s nationwide. In the 2015-2016 school year, about 51 percent of public school students in the U.S. were nonwhite, while about 80 percent of teachers were white, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Paradigm Shift was started several years ago by the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition of Western Massachusetts, which is made up of school districts, colleges and other community groups and nonprofits, at a 2016 summit put on by the Five Colleges and the Collaborative for Educational Services to talk about teacher diversity, Solomon said.

One of the big areas of need is helping paraeducators become teachers, she said.

“The population of paraeducators is much more diverse and much more closely represents the population of kids in our school,” Solomon said.

There are barriers for paraeducators becoming teachers, Solomon said. “One big one is money. That comes in a lot of forms,” she said. “They don’t make a lot of money as paras. They also have to stay in their jobs … They can’t quit their job to do a full-time teacher prep program.”

Paradigm Shift offers free tutoring, tuition reductions, mentoring and reimbursement of Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL) test fees. MTEL tests are expensive, Solomon said.

So far, three teachers have been licensed with help from the program and 30 people are currently in master’s programs getting support from Paradigm Shift, said Danielle Phillips, Paradigm Shift’s program coordinator.

The program isn’t just good for the paraeducators who aspire to be teachers. It’s also beneficial for the students.

“There’s tons of research — little people like to see themselves modeled for them. Even if it’s just in your head, it’s comforting to look around, ‘Oh, I exist!’” Phillips said. “They do better when they have teachers that look like them. There’s research to show that teachers who look like them, they see their potential a lot better. Teachers of color are more likely to recognize students of color as being gifted.”

Research from Johns Hopkins University showed in 2018 that when black students have a black teacher by third grade, they are 32 percent more likely to go to college.

“We think it’s important that the teachers mirror the students — not only their race but their culture and experience,” said Kelly Curran, Holyoke Public Schools manager of recruitment and a steering committee member of the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition of Western Massachusetts.

Bermudez sees the effect on students. She grew up in the Flats neighborhood, where some of her students live, and says she can relate to her students.

“I grew up in the same area as them: Holyoke,” she said. “I understand when they’re frustrated with their parents, life, friends, where they are living … I get it.”

Recently she was talking with a freshman student who lives in her old neighborhood about his options for college. He was worried it would be too expensive, but Bermudez said she told him, “No it’s not expensive. There’s scholarships for students,” telling him schools award scholarships to Hispanic students and people from the Flats.

She wanted him to think that if she could go to college, he could, too.

“I feel like I’m that gateway for them,” she said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.