On Thursday afternoon, April 5, the parking lot of the Meline Kasparian Professional Development Center behind the High School of Science and Technology on State Street was packed with the cars of college graduates or those soon to be grads who’d shown up for the much-anticipated Springfield public schools teacher recruitment fair. The center, a hefty two-story classroom building set up as a sort of continuing education hub for the district’s instructors, was buzzing with activity on one of its special, busier days. Well-dressed prospective Springfield teachers of all ages scurried inside, portfolios in hand, to talk with principals and department heads about job opportunities within the expansive system. While there were similar, smaller events throughout the year, this was the showcase that drew the largest crowd.

Advertised well in advance, the fair was billed as a chance for educators to see and hear what the City of Homes had to offer in the way of career opportunities. This year’s meet and greet was a bit different from 2006, when over 750 would-be teachers showed up, many still lacking the required credentials. For 2007, the human resources department decided to downsize, inviting only those currently licensed in the state or at least almost through the process. This time, about 450 candidates turned out. At the front hallway, personnel employees were set up at a table where they reminded those entering to leave two copies of their resumes before heading upstairs to the main event. On the second floor, long lines of women and men spilled from each classroom, where informal interviews were being conducted. Signs posted above the doors indicated various subject areas, and in some cases individual, specialized schools.

Lucy Perez is the public school’s recruitment coordinator, and she explained that the fair had been scaled back a bit from last year. “For this one, we wanted to concentrate on those who were already qualified,” she said. “Since we speak to so many people, it helps at a gathering like this if we limit ourselves to those who are at least easily certifiable in the short-term.”

In a district with more than 2,700 teachers and a growing need for more, it’s not hard to see why. Springfield has 46 schools across the city and a student population of over 26,000, numbers that dwarf almost every other system in the state. Based on retirement alone, the continual, increasing need for new faculty to replace those leaving is substantial.

As one of the region’s largest cities, Springfield is fast becoming a very popular destination for immigrants looking to settle in the United States, many with children still learning English. When asked about this, Perez told us the school system’s efforts to meet this challenge are huge. “Much of our teacher recruitment is directed to finding suitable candidates for ELL—our English Language Learners program. With so many new families coming here from all over the world—Spanish-speaking countries, Asia, Russia, Somalia—we’re always looking for foreign language specialists who can work with us. Here, being bilingual in the classroom is a big advantage.” According to the district website, the school population is almost half Latino. In addition to Spanish, the city also needs teachers and support staff proficient in Russian, Vietnamese and Somali, as well as other languages.

One major component of Springfield’s profile that makes teaching and learning there different than in many of the surrounding towns is the poverty rate. According to the superintendent’s page on the Internet, more than 75 percent of the students enrolled in the city’s schools currently live in households with incomes below the federal poverty line. While many children from disadvantaged families are certainly able to overcome difficult circumstances, including single-parent home situations, there’s no ignoring the reality that being poor makes succeeding in school just that much harder. In an effort to deal with this difficult dynamic, the district has undertaken one of the most extensive in-service, professional development programs in the whole country for its educators and staff. The Kasparian Center itself exemplifies this initiative: a state-of-the-art facility full of classrooms and equipment, it is a regular hub of activity, the frequent setting for a variety of courses and seminars for faculty, designed to enhance their ability to work with all kinds of kids from varied backgrounds. According to Perez, in addition to the obvious benefits for students of having a dedicated, motivated core of classroom leaders, the training programs have also had the positive effect of improving teacher retention. This is of course crucial for a school system which has recently seen many of its valued employees move on to other, higher-paying positions in surrounding communities.

By now, salaries for teachers in Springfield are more or less in line with those of other areas districts, according to Perez. “Having worked without a contract for the past four years, that’s now settled,” she said. Candidates with a Bachelor’s degree and Massachusetts licensure, newly graduated without experience, usually earn a starting pay of $36,000 in their first year for most subject areas. For critical needs, like the English Language Learners program, Special Education, Math and Science, beginning pay is higher, around $38,000. Those with a Master’s degree generally start at about $38,000 in the non-critical fields.

While many of us remember most of our teachers being women, the gender gap in the profession is slowly closing. In Springfield, the female/male split by percentage is currently about 70-30, which is close to the national average. Perez explained that the district is making an effort to recruit more men, and she affirmed the notion that the presence of solid male role models for children in the classroom is an important consideration. Given that monetary compensation is improving gradually across the country, perhaps this trend toward a more even divide will continue. As globalization and out-sourcing lead to increased layoffs and downsizing within a whole range of traditionally male-dominated white-collar occupations, it seems likely that a growing number of men in the work force with degrees may soon be persuaded to think about a career transition to teaching.

Extended periods of employment in the 21st-century business world can certainly be unfulfilling at times, often leaving those there to wonder about other more meaningful, positive vocations. In a corporate climate in which many jobs are about how much money one can make for someone else, the idea of contributing constructively by helping kids learn has great appeal.

While working in the Springfield school system undoubtedly has its particular challenges, there are also significant benefits, which almost any long-term teacher there will gladly relate. If recent recruitment efforts by the city are an indication, plenty of new prospects are willing to give it a chance themselves. ?

To learn more about employment opportunities with the Springfield Public Schools, please visit them online, at www.sps.springfield.ma.us or contact Lucy Perez in the Human Resources Department at (413) 787-7180.