In Their Words: Paradigm Shift

Paradigm Shift participants and faculty at June 2019 orientation. Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart.

At Paradigm Shift, we’re working to help Black and Latinx para-educators in Springfield, Holyoke, and Amherst become licensed teachers. When I think about what’s important to me about Paradigm Shift, I think of my own kids. They are Black people and I’m white. Growing up, it was clear that being connected to a Black community was important to their sense of well-being. Without their relationships with others who love them and look like them–their dad, their aunts and uncles and cousins, parents of Black friends–there would be something missing. And making these kinds of connections is what Paradigm Shift is about. The stories of two Paradigm Shift participants, both now teachers, are great examples of this.

Jazebel Bermudez Vera is a 33-year-old ELL Educator at the Dean Campus of Holyoke High School (HHS) who was born and raised in a Holyoke family that had come here from New York and Puerto Rico. Things were tough in her family: her mom had an abusive boyfriend and she describes her siblings as falling through the cracks in the public school system. But teachers connected with Jazebel. From elementary school to when she graduated with high honors from Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy in Springfield, her teachers all “made sure my mind was not on home.”

Jazebel Bermudez Vera, on right, in her classroom at Dean Technical High School. Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart.

Jazebel’s connection with her grandmother, who raised her after her primary family broke apart, has also been extremely important to her. At times when she wanted to quit her pursuit of her bachelor’s degree or teaching license, her grandma would say, “You’ve got to be the first. You’re going to save someone the same way you were saved.”

Connections have been key in Jazebel’s process of preparing to be a teacher. She started working as a para-educator at Mary Walsh Elementary School in Springfield in 2012. “Those kids changed my life and I changed theirs.” Her connection with them cemented her desire to become a teacher. In 2016, she was hired as a teacher on waiver at Dean Tech High School, Holyoke, and began the Mount Holyoke College licensure program, a Paradigm Shift partner, in 2018. Paradigm Shift helped her pay test fees and stay the course. Jazebel will complete her master of arts in teaching with licensure in June 2020.

Ashley Leger, photo courtesy of Ashley Leger.

For Ashley Leger, an African-American woman and 5th grade special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, her first connection was with her mother. “I was raised by a very southern Black woman, who stressed the importance of having an education, of having a voice, of making sure that I did everything that was given to me because at one point in time, these things were not available to people like me.”

After completing high school in Mississippi, Leger obtained a bachelor’s degree in political science and then went on to earn her Master’s degree in adult education. But her first job in adult education, with a program helping parents understand why they should read to their kids, sparked her interest in working directly with children. “I saw that kids are the way they are because of the challenges their families face. I thought, maybe we can help the babies in the beginning. If we can give them what they need, teach them, and be there for them when they need it, maybe they won’t be so far off in the end, maybe they won’t go from elementary school to prison.”

She became a 3rd grade para-educator at Lincoln Elementary School, and in her second year there, Principal Mark McCann “saw me, saw what I was doing,” Leger recounts, “and he said to me, ‘What do I have to do to make you a teacher in my school?’” That December, she was hired as a teacher on waiver. But financial barriers were keeping her from registering for and taking her licensure tests. Principal McCann told her to come to his office, “and that day he paid for my first set of tests.”

Through the Springfield College teacher licensure program, she got connected to Paradigm Shift, which enabled her to keep going, take more tests, and complete the program. Leger obtained a license in teaching students with moderate disabilities in June 2019, one of the first Paradigm Shift completers.

Jazebel Bermudez Vera, in center, at Dean Technical High School with her students. Photo courtesy of Ben Barnhart.

“This program is a necessity, not only for the school administrators but for the students,” Leger says. “To get teachers into the schools who truly care about the students and who may have faced adversities and now are on an alternate route to getting a degree or their teaching license, this program makes it real for people who may have felt like it was out of their reach.”

Paradigm Shift started when a group of committed individuals in schools and colleges came together to articulate a vision for a more diverse teacher workforce in western Massachusetts. Three years and many plans later, our Coalition’s leadership group meets every month, with teams working together in between, because without each other, we could not achieve the systems change needed to reach our goal. Like Leger and Jazebel, we are stronger because we are connected.

About the Author: Marla Solomon is the Director of Partnership Programs for the Five College Consortium and project director for Paradigm Shift. Five College Partnership Programs bring together the resources of the Five Colleges — Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith Colleges, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst — for the benefit of public K-12 education.

Since 2017, the Five College Consortium has received CFWM Innovation Grant funding, which encourages nonprofits to develop and execute novel ideas, to convene and support the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition of Western Massachusetts, a network of 25 colleges, school districts, educator unions, workforce development agencies and community organizations working together to diversify the teacher workforce in western Massachusetts. Paradigm Shift is an initiative of the Diverse Teacher Workforce Coalition that provides MTEL test support, financial help, and mentoring to para-educators of color and teachers of color on waivers in Springfield, Holyoke and Amherst public schools who are studying to complete teacher licensure. Through this effort, 20 new Black and Latinx teachers will join the region’s teacher ranks by 2021, forging a strong pathway to teaching for para-educators of color and a regional collaborative model we plan to share with other communities with the same goal. Paradigm Shift is also supported by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and the Beveridge Family Foundation. For more information, please visit: www.paradigmshift-teach.org or contact Marla at msolomon@fivecolleges.edu or Danielle Phillips, Paradigm Shift Coordinator, at dphillips@fivecolleges.edu.