Paradigm Shift Seeks to Expand its Team of Community Collaborators
Coalition is helping to build diversity in the teacher workforce in Western Massachusetts
AMHERST—A program backed by a regional coalition of 25 educational and workforce organizations has a mission to build teacher diversity in the region and seeks to expand its team of collaborators.
Called Paradigm Shift, the initiative offers tuition assistance as well as support for Black or Latinx professionals who assist classroom teachers and want to become licensed teachers. Known as para-educators, these professionals are sometimes called “teacher’s aides” or “paraprofessionals.”
In this region, said Marla Solomon, director of Five College Partnership Programs and of the Paradigm Shift project, there is a stark lack of teacher diversity in public school districts.
Because research shows that cultural diversity among teachers strengthens educational outcomes for students, Solomon said Paradigm Shift has a goal to help 20 Black and Latinx para-educators become licensed teachers in Holyoke, Springfield, and Amherst before the end of 2021.
“Students feel more connected to the educational process and motivated to achieve when their teachers share similarities in race, culture, and community,” Solomon said. “Research indicates that, for a child of color, having even one teacher of the same race can mean the difference between dropping out of high school or earning a diploma.”
The Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition of Western Massachusetts, which created Paradigm Shift, is made up of leaders in local public school districts, along with the heads of teacher training programs in area community colleges, colleges, and universities; the region’s workforce boards; educator unions; community organizations; and other teacher support organizations such as Teach Western Mass.
“We are seeking more collaborators like those we are already working with—as well as funders—so we can expand the work we are doing,” Solomon said. “We strongly believe in the importance of what we’re doing. We’re collaborating across what are usually competitive boundaries toward a common, urgent goal.”
Potential collaborators interested in learning more can contact Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Solomon said this regional initiative is part of a larger state and national movement. “We’ve seen a huge increase in the level of activity in Massachusetts, certainly over the last year. We want to keep building that,” she said. “The more activity and the more pressure there is to work on this issue, the more progress we can make quickly. We hope to broaden our reach to impact the lives of even more para-educators, and subsequently, students in our region’s classrooms.”
In Holyoke, 84 percent of the student body is Black and Latinx, while 79 percent of the teachers are white.
Similarly, in Springfield, 86 percent of the student body is Black and Latinx, while 81 percent of the teachers are white.
Disparity also exists in Amherst, where 47 percent of students are non-white overall while 80 percent of teachers are white. This discrepancy is even stronger in the elementary grades—a critical learning period for students.
In contrast to the region’s student population, Solomon said almost half of the roughly 1,200 para-educators working in Springfield, Holyoke, and Amherst are Black and Latinx. “They represent the region’s diverse communities, and they are already here,” Solomon said. “They have valuable classroom experience—and they know our students. Many para-educators want to become teachers but may need help navigating the process. Helping them become licensed offers the quickest route to positive change.”
She added that para-educators face considerable obstacles in getting licensed, including a confusing licensing process; workplace cultures that aren’t always welcoming; and problems finding money and time to get licensed.
Through its coalition, Paradigm Shift provides free tutoring, prep courses, mentoring, and a tuition reduction supported by each para-educator’s district and college—all worth roughly $11,000 to each para-educator looking to earn a teaching license.
Paradigm Shift was created in 2017, when the Five College Consortium received a $50,000 Innovation Grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts to develop a strategy to shift the balance in teacher diversity.
In 2018, the foundation granted Paradigm Shift $139,000, and, in February 2019, $142,000. These other nonprofits have also offered funding: the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, awarding $40,000 over two years in 2018; and the Beveridge Family Foundation, $30,000 in 2018.
“The end goal is that school districts and colleges will take this on themselves, and it need not be a philanthropic endeavor,” said Danielle Phillips, Paradigm Shift program coordinator.
Seven para-educators have already earned a master’s degree through support from Paradigm Shift.
“The first 20 teachers in our new supported pathway will directly teach almost 100,000 children in the course of their careers and will be role models for many more,” Solomon said. “Equally important, they will motivate other Black and Latinx para-educators to pursue the same path and other community residents to consider education careers.”
Solomon said that in addition to putting para-educators on more financially stable ground as teachers and increasing the overall pool of teacher candidates, having a more diverse teacher workforce has shown to positively impact students.
To learn more about Paradigm Shift and its work, visit paradigmshift-teach.org.