Educators conduct panel discussion on education in Western Mass.

June 14, 2022 | Trent Levakis

Panelists discuss different aspects of the condition of education in Western Massachusetts. (Left to right: Matthew Deninger, Pema Latshang, Chad d’Entremont, Graeham Dodd and William Cameron.)
Reminder Publishing photo by Trent Levakis

HOLYOKE – A meeting of Western Massachusetts leaders in education took place at the Delaney House in Holyoke on June 9 for the Condition of Education (COE) in Western Massachusetts event.
The event was organized by the Rennie Center for Education and Research Policy, an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit organization whose mission is to inform decision making on education across the state.

Speaking on behalf of the Rennie Center was Executive Director Chad d’Entremont and Sophie Zamarripa, senior associate. While addressing the many different educators in attendance, d’Entremont said they seek to create spaces for constructive conversation where educators can identify and better understand multifaceted issues.

“This year the COE action guide specifically in the focus of our work has been on investing in educators and how Massachusetts can support teachers through the pandemic and beyond,” d’Entremont said. “I can’t think of a better space than the education sector. Where you find people who are passionate, who are committed, who are trained, who are fool hearted enough to say, ‘you know what, I actually think we can prove this.’”

d’Entremont added that if educators maintain motivation to change the issues within current day education, he believes the positive changes sought are attainable. Zamarripa next spoke and shared more detailed information on research being done by the Rennie Center.

According to Zamarripa, this year’s report seeks to highlight how educators can be empowered to effectively meet the academic and social emotional needs of their students and other information regarding the condition of schools in the western part of the commonwealth.

Zamarripa shared statewide data showing that students aged zero to five that are eligible for financial assistance and enrolled in high quality early education across the state is at 63 percent, a slight decrease from last year.

“High quality early education educational experiences as we know are important for children’s future academic outcomes and provide a safe and welcoming environment that can support brain development, health and wellbeing while mitigating trauma,” Zamarripa said.

When looking at the educator pipeline data, Zamarripa said the Rennie Center continues to track data on diversity of both in service and preservice educators. She noted that in the 2021-2022 school year 90.8 percent of all Massachusetts public school teachers identified as white.

The highest gap between educator and student identity exists between Hispanic Latinx students and their teachers at an 18 percent differential. Zamarripa added that 2020 saw Hispanic-Latinx enrollment at the highest its been at 5.8 percent of all teaching candidates in Massachusetts.
Zamarripa referenced how Springfield Public Schools (SPS) recently had been working to hire a more diverse pool of educators. With grant money through the teacher diversification pilot program from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), SPS was given the ability to provide tuition and licensure test prep assistance.

Zamarripa also had information regarding higher education and shared data on first time degree seekers attending a college or university and the overall work of the Rennie Center in trying to further education.

“Over the past year, the enrollment on first time degree seeking candidates decreased for [the University of Massachusetts] and state universities while community colleges actually saw an 8 percent increase,” Zamarripa said. “We have a really unique opportunity to be in constant communication with educators, students, school leaders and other stakeholders.”

Zamarripa also acknowledged that nothing over the last year has been more apparent then the unprecedented levels of isolation, stress and exhaustion across the system among educators in particular. This would be a common theme of discussions throughout the day.

“Rather than placing the onus on educators alone to shoulder the mode of adapting to this moment, we have to demonstrate how investing in educators can lead to better and more sustainable practices now and in the future,” Zamarripa said.

When beginning the panel discussion, each person on the panel spoke on their work and goals for improving the condition of education in the state.

The first panelist to speak was Matthew Deninger, chief strategy and research officer for DESE, and he spoke about how Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund funds have been utilized strategically to help the communities whose schools are struggling the most and credited the funds for being distributed where they were most needed but also being useful for many school districts.

Pema Latshang, founding executive director of Teach Western Mass., also joined the panel and explained how the work done through Teach Western Mass. has helped districts in achieving and ensuring a high quality, diverse teacher workforce. Teach Western Mass. was founded in 2018 and is an alternate teacher prep program.

Latshang said the group has already partnered with Holyoke and Springfield public and charter schools and create new alternate pathways for aspiring teachers.

“This allows an opportunity for more people to come to confession. We meet a lot of people that say they’ve always wanted to be a teacher but never have been able to make it happen. There’s a lot of barriers to entry into the profession,” Latshang said. “Teach Western Mass has really worked to reduce barriers into the profession, which allow more people and more types of people to become teachers.
Latshang added that diversifying a teacher workforce is a priority for the state and within a lot of communities. She also added it was important for communities to have educators that closely match the student demographics.

Graeham Dodd, director of the education initiative at Smith College, echoed similar themes of establishing a better pipeline for future educators coming out of the pandemic. Dodd works with high school and college students at the undergraduate level who are interested in entering the education world.

The program through which Dodd works with students is thought of as an educator pathway program and is designed to give undergraduates a chance to intern in classrooms K-12 or other education initiatives throughout the world.

When opened to audience questions, educator Eamon Lin-Weinhelmer spoke to the panel and explained the wide variety of schools he has worked in Massachusetts over his career. From Springfield and Holyoke to Acton-Boxborough and Brookline, Lin-Weinhelmer has worked in many different school districts.

Lin-Weinhelmer said while it is well intentioned to put funding into certain areas of schools to build back up, there are certain areas that need significant change but lack resources.

“When are we going to come to really uncomfortable talk because we’re really at a point where we need to change something significant here. I look around this room and I don’t see too many people that look like me but in the classrooms that I’m teaching, most of the students are very much like me,” Lin-Weinhelmer said.

When brought to the panel, Latshang responded by saying she agreed with his concerns and that the best way to create real change is establishing relationships and individual emphasis.

“I hear a lot of what you’re saying, and it resonates with different parts of my own career and apart from other people,” Latshang said. “You really have to focus on an individual emphasis. Theres a community in between and then there’s the system. Everything is through relationship and you can push difficult conversations through compassionate relationships.”

William Cameron, chair of the Pittsfield School Committee, also responded to Lin-Weinhelmers and said he sees the issue from a different perspective.

“When we talk about the income inequality in American life, I don’t think schools by themselves are able to solve problems. The problem is mirrored in schools,” Cameron said. “But I do think that if you look at what the historic mission of schools has been, which is to prepare children and young people for participation in society in a way that’s supposed to be participating in self-government. You’re looking at the need for people to have work through school to master the skills that are necessary for them to succeed.”

Cameron continued by saying the social dynamics of students before they enter the schools is something out of their control, but they do have control over what happens within school. He added that for him, he has never understood why schools are organized in a way that is totally at odds with what every educator and parent know: not all children are the same.

Cameron noted that students learn at different rates and a bigger issue is the way students are benchmarked for progress compared to one another when there can be so much variety in students learning.

Another educator in the audience added to the conversation by saying he felt if there was more continuity across districts, students could see improvement although it was an unlikely to happen due to the legislature’s priorities and the political battle it could become.

“When you have school districts that are isolated by municipal borders, you will never truly address the issue,” he said. “I live in Lowell, MA. One of the neighboring communities is Chelmsford. You could not find two different districts in terms of poverty and opportunity, expectations for students, etc.”
Another educator said through feedback that any policy that involved the increase of teachers salaries would have positive impacts across the board and her comment was seconded by Latshang.

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