College of Education Targets Merrimack Valley Students with Scholarships, Visits and More

Ellen Infante and 16 other students visited the UMass Lowell campus and the College of Education Image by K. Webster
Ellen Infante and 16 other Lawrence High School students visited campus to learn about careers in teaching.

By Katharine Webster

When Lawrence High School senior Nicole Villafana visited campus recently for a class trip hosted by the College of Education, she got even more excited about studying for her chosen career as a special education teacher.

Villafana accompanied College of Education student ambassador Gabby Favreau to a psychology class. She and the other students also took part in a discussion about the importance of diversity in education with teachers of color and several first-generation college students from the River Hawk Scholars Academy, a pizza lunch with undergraduates and a brief tour of a suite in Sheehey Residence Hall where iTeach, the living-learning community for education majors, is located.

At the end of the visit, Villafana said that the best part of her day was attending the class, Honors Introduction to Psychological Science, taught by Assoc. Prof. Stephanie Block.

Nicole Villafana, right, and two other students from Lawrence High visited the UMass Lowell campus to consider careers in education Image by K. Webster
Nicole Villafana, right, is applying to UMass Lowell. She plans to become a special education teacher.

“Even though it was a shadowing situation, the professor treated me like a student,” Villafana said. “I didn’t feel like an outsider.”

Villafana is already planning to apply to UMass Lowell as an education major. Some of her classmates in the Critical Issues in Education class at Lawrence High aren’t so sure where they want to go to college or what they want to study. The aim of the visit was to encourage them to consider careers in education.

The visit by 17 Lawrence High School students is just one part of a multipronged effort to diversify the teacher workforce in Massachusetts. Research shows that students of color do better in school when some of their teachers and role models look like them and share their culture.

Right now, 40 percent of K-12 students in Massachusetts are people of color, but only 8 percent of teachers and 14 percent of college education majors are, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. UML’s College of Education is one of three teacher education programs selected by the state to pilot the new aMAzing Educators program, which aims to change those numbers.

Diversifying the teacher workforce is a high priority for College of Education Dean Eleanor Abrams, too. She and Assoc. Dean Sharon Subreenduth see strong partnerships with local high schools as the path to diversifying the teaching profession and the education students who come to UMass Lowell. Research indicates that most education graduates return to teach in their communities.

“We need to grow our own (teachers),” Abrams says. “That means getting kids interested in becoming teachers, helping them get through college here and then supporting them when they return to their communities to teach.”

Students studying education at Lawrence High School and their teachers visited campus to learn about teaching careers Image by K. Webster
The College of Education hosted the visit as part of a state program to diversify teachers in urban schools.

The College of Education’s first efforts are directed at Lawrence High School, which already offers classes that introduce students to the field of education, and Lowell High School, which is working with the College of Education to pilot a career pathway for students interested in teaching.

Both cities are among the 10 school districts in the state with the highest percentage of students of color. Other Merrimack Valley cities, including Haverhill and Methuen, aren’t far behind.

Thanks to the generosity of alumna Janis Raguin ’92 and her husband John, the College of Education also can offer a small number of GROW (Grow our Own) Scholarships to talented undergraduate education majors from the Merrimack Valley.

“Most students end up teaching within a 25-mile radius of where they’re educated,” says Raguin, who serves on the College of Education Advisory Board and received the college’s University Alumni Award in the spring of 2019. “We hope students who receive this scholarship will stay here and inspire the next generation.”

The state’s aMAzing Educators program offers multiple ways to pursue a teaching degree at the undergraduate or master’s level. At the same time, the state is offering grants to school districts to help them diversify teacher recruitment and retain good educators from underrepresented groups. The grants can be used to help classroom paraprofessionals earn a degree in teaching, offer loan forgiveness for new teachers in high-needs districts and more.

Lawrence High School students Ellen Infante, Yanelyse Lopez and Oscar Burgos attended a teaching methods class at UMass Lowell Image by K. Webster
Infante, Yanalyse Lopez and Oscar Burgos took part in a teaching methods class.

UMass Lowell’s College of Education also helped the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education pilot another initiative, the InSPIRED Fellowship, Subreenduth says. The fellows are teachers of color who work with the state and education programs like UMass Lowell’s to recruit diverse candidates to the profession. Two InSPIRED Fellows from the Lawrence schools spoke to the visiting Lawrence High students, along with an associate commissioner of education from the state.

The visit to UML’s campus helped the Lawrence High students focus their future education plans. Oscar Burgos, a senior, enjoys teaching younger students at the high school who, like him, are enrolled in the Upward Bound college access program. He’s still unsure whether he wants to pursue political science or a teaching degree in college. But no matter – he will figure that out later.

For now, he was just excited to be visiting campus for the first time. Like Villafana, Burgos said that attending a class, Foundations of Reading, was the highlight of his day. He understood the concepts that the education students discussed – each did a presentation on a different literacy technique, from choral reading to paired reading – and he thought, “I can do this!”

“It’s the first time I’m in a college with a professor, and (seeing) teachers and students being so engaged and applying what they learned in such a fluid way,” he said.

He’s planning to apply.