For Everton Vargas da Costa, downtown Framingham feels like walking through the familiar streets of his home country, Brazil. The neighborhood is saturated with Brazilian cultural influence — from storefronts donned with the country’s flag to smells of authentic food filling the streets, and most importantly, to the native Portuguese language spoken by its dense Brazilian population.
Reflecting the city’s cultural diversity, approximately 30 percent of students in the Framingham school district are learning English, with Portuguese or Spanish as their primary language. Yet the city’s public schools are mostly taught by white, monolingual, English-speaking teachers.
To ensure that Framingham Public Schools have faculty aligned with the district’s student body, Vargas da Costa worked alongside organizers from Framingham State University and the school system to establish a program training bilingual and multilingual teachers at the secondary level.
“This is investing in a generation of bilingual citizens,” said Vargas da Costa, the coordinator of talent acquisition, learning, and growth for the program. “It’s like seeing a cohort of kids having an opportunity that I didn’t have.”
Beginning this school year, the Framingham Teacher Residency AmeriCorps Program will help 10 teacher candidates obtain licensure to teach at the middle and high school level by serving as full-time teachers at Cameron and Fuller Middle Schools.
The training, funded by a $1.7 million grant from the federal AmeriCorps program via the Massachusetts Service Alliance, will include close mentoring, hands-on experience, and graduate-level courses at Framingham State.
The grant provides funding to continue the program for three years. However, Kelly Matthews, its director, said she and other organizers hope to renew the grant and maintain the program for decades to come.
Most importantly, Matthews said, the program will train teacher candidates to be culturally responsive educators.
“We want teachers to be able to connect to the cultures of the students in their classroom,” she said. “We need to welcome more teachers into the profession who share the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and linguistic backgrounds of their students.”
To further promote bicultural awareness, bilingualism, and biliteracy, organizers hope the program will allow Framingham Public Schools to expand its pre-existing Portuguese and Spanish dual-language programs, which evenly integrate a second language with English instruction, said Wardell Powell, assistant director of teaching and learning for the program.
The dual-language program currently runs through the fifth grade. But the teacher residency program aims to provide teachers who can continue dual-language instruction through middle and high school.
“We don’t want language to become a barrier to our students’ success,” Powell said. “I do hope that the program is able to help the students who actually need it the most.”
Vargas da Costa said the program demonstrates how Framingham State University and the city’s public school system recognize the diverse population it serves while appreciating the knowledge, skills, and experiences they bring to the table. Increasing the number of multilingual teachers also offers students more opportunity to succeed, he said.
“Being a country of immigrants is also valuing the languages of the immigrants,” Vargas da Costa said. “These programs make a difference in people’s lives, not only for Brazilian or Spanish-speaking families, but also for many English-speaking monolingual families, because they are having the opportunity to raise kids who are going to become bilingual.”
Around 80 community members expressed interest in the program, but Vargas da Costa said linguistic, legal, and personal obstacles barred some applicants from pursuing it. Although the teacher residency program is off to a strong start, Vargas da Costa said, he hopes future cohorts of the program will be larger and more inclusive of the talent available in Framingham and beyond.
“It was interesting to identify that we might have been losing a lot of opportunities and good potential teachers because of legal status and citizenship status .... Some people [felt] that they they didn’t have enough English to take graduate classes,” Vargas da Costa said.
He plans to continuously recruit more teacher candidates into the program by forming meaningful connections with local Brazilian and Spanish-speaking organizations.
Organizers agree that the Framingham Teacher Residency AmeriCorps program is a step in the right direction toward diversifying the teaching profession for the benefit of students. Although it starts in Framingham, Powell said, it’s something that can benefit the Massachusetts community at large.
“Investing in diversity and making that experience of diversity more specialized is going to make Massachusetts an even better place to live,” Vargas da Costa said.
Katie Mogg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @j0urnalistkatie