One of the most pressing challenges facing the nation’s K-12 public schools comes, quite literally, down to the basics — the ABCs.
With the benefit of a grant from the Department of Education, researchers at the College of Education and the Center for the Study of At-Risk Students have been working with five Washington school districts to help English language learners, or ELL students, succeed in the classroom. The Language Acquisition Project intends to arm both teachers and paraeducators with teaching strategies that will help students learn English and stay on track in their education. Success, according to one researcher, is critical.
“Given the demographic changes we’re experiencing, I think that public education in this country is going to be about how well we educate immigrant students, ELL students,” said Tom Stritikus, an assistant professor in the College of Education. “If we don’t do it well, public education will fail.”
Stritikus is quick to point to a recent study from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction that illustrates the demographic trend. Nineteen districts in the state already have at least 25 percent of their students enrolled in a program for ELL students, according to the study. And in at least six districts a majority of the students are ELL.
With limited English language proficiency these students often have lower levels of academic performance and drop out more often than their English-fluent peers. The number of such students is steadily increasing and at the same time the push for higher academic standards is continuing. That combination poses a problem that won’t easily be fixed.
But to try, Stritikus and Mark Gray, a doctoral candidate and C-STARS researcher, devised a class for educators in the five partner districts. The curriculum will help teachers and paraeducators better understand the student populations they’re dealing with and provide them with pedagogical strategies to help the students succeed.
“Students who are immigrants have more than likely had a very different kind of education than their American teachers had,” Gray said. “Not only has it taken place in another culture and another language, but there are all kinds of different models even within countries.”
Students from urban areas of Mexico, Gray says, usually come into the classroom with more advanced skills in math and science than their American peers. Students from rural Mexico, however, might not have gone to school at all. Students from many Asian and east European countries are used to authoritarian teachers and passive students.
But while the students come from varied educational backgrounds, they’re often met by the same reaction from their American teachers, Gray says.
“The tendency is to pity them,” he said. “Well it turns out that that feeling of pity is a little bit misplaced. They’ve generally got good strong families with rich traditions. And they’ve got lots of skills.”
For that reason the curriculum focuses a great deal on the skills, not the deficiencies, the students likely bring to the classroom. In fact, students who are learning English often bring a maturity and drive to their education that mainstream students simply don’t have.
In addition to his work at the UW, Gray is a program administrator for the English language learners program in the Auburn School District. He tells the story of one Korean student in his district who, at age 14, decided she needed to move to the United States to live with an aunt and uncle, who she’d never met, for her high school years. The move, she reasoned, would help her get a good grasp of English before she began her college studies in the U.S.
“She’s not ready to hit a university classroom yet, but she’s going to be,” Gray said. “She’s getting wonderful grades, just by sheer grit and determination. There’s lots of stories like that out there.”
One proven way to effectively focus on a student’s academic strengths is to provide instruction in both English and the student’s primary language from a qualified teacher. Unfortunately that’s not realistic in the current climate. There simply aren’t enough qualified teachers who speak Spanish, Russian, Chinese or any of the more than 150 languages spoken in public schools in Washington.
But paraeducators, who often come from the same language groups as many of a school’s immigrant students, can help bridge that gap.
“So many of our school districts’ populations of at-risk kids are from cultures that are different from the mainstream cultures that the teachers come from,” said Al Smith, C-STARS director. “We’re very reliant, linguistically and culturally, on paraeducators.”
The classes Stritikus and Gray designed began in earnest last month and will continue into December. In the broadest sense the classes are intended to improve performance among ELL students. But there are slightly different goals for the teachers and for the paraeducators.
“They have different needs,” Gray said. “The teachers need hands-on teaching strategies that they can access in order to feel that they are moving forward with instruction. They need strategies that help them engage students. With the paras it’s all about empowerment. It’s teaching them to recognize the skills that they have.”
The class is currently available in its pilot form for educators in the Grandview, Kent, Mabton, Sunnyside and Toppenish districts. The Kent group meets on the UW campus while the other four districts meet on the Heritage College campus in Toppenish. The goal eventually is to offer the class on a wider basis throughout the state.