Western Mass. schools picked for science-based pilot program

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The STEM building, nearing completion, at Westfield State University, May 2016._561752

The STEM building, nearing completion, at Westfield State University, May 2016.

Westfield State University, Holyoke Community College (HCC) and Springfield Public Schools are partnering to leverage a $1.5 million award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop MassTeach, a new model for increasing and diversifying the ranks of educators who are prepared to teach science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in high-need school districts.

HCC will recruit potential candidates for entry into the program beginning in fall 2018. Many of the candidates are expected to come from existing STEM Starter Academy programs, which give high school students a chance to take STEM college classes and learn more about STEM careers. 

The goal of MassTeach will be to expand to students at all 15 community colleges and nine state universities in the Commonwealth within three years, eventually placing 50 new teachers in STEM classrooms with 50 more teacher candidates in the post-secondary pipeline, according to Westfield State spokeman Tony Watkins. Further, Watkins said it is hoped that MassTeach will serve as a new national model for recruiting, training and retaining STEM educators. 

“Expanding partnerships with local schools and community colleges, we at Westfield State are thrilled to work with Springfield Public Schools and Holyoke Community College to help educate aspiring STEM teachers and increase the diversity of teachers in our area schools,” said Ramon S. Torrecilha, Ph.D., president of Westfield State University. “This collaborative program is indicative of Massachusetts’ progressive approach to education and a gracious endorsement by the NSF to support our teachers and students across the Commonwealth. We are fortunate that our Professor of Biology Jennifer Hanselman, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Education Erold Bailey, Ed.D., will lend their considerable talent and expertise to serve as co-principal investigators for this regional project.”

HCC Math Professor Ileana Vasu, coordinator of HCC’s STEM program explained, “While Massachusetts is a national leader in K-12 education, there is a sense of urgency to recruit and diversify the STEM teacher pools, and in particular to serve our Latino and black students. MassTeach is predicated on the belief that decreasing diversity gaps by recruiting teachers from community colleges like HCC will improve underrepresented minority student achievement.”

“What’s exciting about MassTeach is that it is not a stand-alone initiative that will end once the federal grant is spent,” said Dr. Carlos E. Santiago, Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education. “This program is built on the solid foundation of our new transfer system, regarded as one of the most comprehensive and student-friendly systems in the nation. We’re very pleased that the NSF has recognized our ability to effectively move STEM teacher candidates from community colleges to state universities to urban districts where their talents can be put to good use.”

Currently, Watkins said 90 percent of Massachusetts teachers are white, compared with an overall student population that is 60 percent white. A wide body of research indicates that students often perform better academically when they are taught by teachers they can identify with. One of the aspects of MassTeach is that it will place new teachers in urban communities where they grew up and attended school, allowing grant evaluators to gauge whether educators’ local roots serve as a catalyst for their retention in the classroom.

The MassTeach Scholars will receive $20,000 scholarships as well as academic advising to keep them on track to transfer, graduate with a STEM degree and obtain a STEM teaching license. 

“Highly qualified, effective and diverse educators is a strategic focus of the Springfield Public Schools. It is intentional and embedded in our mission because teacher quality is a key determinant of student success,” said Daniel J. Warwick, superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools. “We are so pleased about the MassTeach grant and how it aligns so closely with the district’s “grow your own” initiatives. MassTeach will enable us to move closer to our goal of a more diversified teacher workforce, especially in the area of STEM where there is a critical shortage not just in Springfield but also nationwide.”

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