BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts has made important strides toward diversifying its educators and supporting students of color, advocates say, but there is still a long way to go.

Latinos for Education kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month Wednesday with a celebration of the organization’s fifth anniversary, with Latino educators joining advocates and legislators in Great Hall.

Manny Cruz, Latinos for Education advocacy director for Massachusetts, said one of the organization’s major goals is to get more educators of color and bilingual teachers into classrooms.

Only 5 percent of educators in Massachusetts currently identify as Latinx, compared to 23 percent of students. On a broader scale, 12 percent of educators say they are people of color, and 40 percent of students identify the same way.

House Speaker Ron Mariano turned out for the event and told reporters that as the demographics of the state keep changing “we need to keep pace with the changes that are going on.”

“You need folks that reflect the students that are in front of them,” said Mariano (D-Quincy).

Latinos for Education, along with other advocacy organizations forming the Massachusetts Educator Diversity Act Coalition, aims to double the number of educators of color by 2030 from 12 percent to 25 percent.

Cruz applauded what he called recent legislative successes, including bills filed this session by Education Committee Co-chairs Sen. Jason Lewis and Rep. Alice Peisch. The Educator Diversity Act (H 4539 and S 2748) is intended to support educators of color, address racial and cultural bias training in educator professional development and promote a racially and culturally inclusive curriculum.

The bills, which cleared the Education Committee in March and now sit in the Senate and House Ways and Means committees, include new processes for granting educator certification that may be used as an alternative to typical testing requirements. The process would consider if a candidate has obtained certification in another state-approved department, completed a portfolio of items that may include student feedback or competency-based projects, or obtained a master’s degree or doctorate from an accredited institution.

The new measures would allow more educators of color to be certified to teach, Cruz said, and close gaps that he said stem from “disproportionate pass rates” on typical testing requirements.

The bill would also increase data transparency with respect to the state of the educator workforce and help teacher track retention rates.

“We certainly believe that there is a value in seeing Latino educators, given that the largest population of students of color identify as Latino,” Cruz said.

Rep. Aaron Michelwitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues were given the Educator Diversity Champion Award at Wednesday’s event, for helping to secure nearly $25 million in new funding for the Early College Program – an initiative launched in 2017 aimed at helping high school students from low-income families and communities of color access college courses in high school – in the fiscal year 2023 budget.

Rodrigues, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee, told reporters after the event that “ensuring that our educator workforce reflects the students that are before them is critically important, not only for the language, but for the culture, to understand where the students come from, what the student’s family life is like, what the student’s history and culture has been.”

During a speech Wednesday, Peisch also pointed to “progressive funding” in the state budget this year for early childhood education, and mentioned that Student Opportunity Act funding started to kick in this year, which will partially go toward programs to help students who do not speak English as their first language.

Marta Garcia, recognized as Massachusetts Teacher of the Year for 2022 by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, teaches English as a second language, or as she called it “multilingual learner education.” She said she teaches in the Salem Public School District with an “additive” mindset – that English is not replacing a student’s first language, just adding a new skill.

“I try to honor their identities and the languages they already speak, and the values that come with that, with a second set of values through a new language,” she told the News Service.

While it is important to teach students English in a predominantly English-speaking country, Garcia said, it is just as important to her to understand where they come from, and how it shapes them.

In Salem, Garcia said the English second language program is “really really robust.” However, she said there is still work to be done in the general education classroom, where monolingual teachers do not always know how to be culturally inclusive to multilingual students.

“Teachers need professional development on how to deal with bilingual children, because students who have the ability to speak more than one language often process information differently and need to have their identities reaffirmed,” she said.