In Providence, the need for English Language instruction is urgent and growing. In 2015, Superintendent Chris Maher called the rapidly shifting demographics a “tidal wave of need” and the numbers have certainly proven his words to be true. The Providence Public School District serves approximately 24,000 students each year. Five years ago, 19 percent of those students qualified for English Language Learning services. This year, that percentage has grown to 26 percent. If this trend continues as expected, five years from now approximately one-third of our total student population will require additional ELL services.
In order to meet this growing demand, the number of ESL- and Dual Language-certified educators must also increase. That means the district must overcome the most prevalent barriers to expanding this teaching workforce: time and money. ESL and Dual Language certification for existing teachers requires a significant time commitment – 18 months of rigorous courses in addition to a full-time teaching load. Financially, this translates to approximately $8,000 in out-of-pocket tuition expenses per teacher.
Some major players in the Rhode Island education landscape have come together to tackle the challenges of finding and training staff with the expertise needed to serve students who need English Langugage Learning services. Recognizing the need to alleviate some of the barriers to ESL and Dual Language certification, the Rhode Island Foundation has teamed up with two public higher education institutions — URI and RIC –and five urban school districts to reduce tuition costs significantly for 60 teachers who will enroll in an 18-month certification program. Taken as a whole, this represents an investment of nearly a half million dollars in professional development for educators who will work directly with English Learners.
Almost $500,000 will be set aside for the training, which will be awarded to the five districts with the most English language learners: Providence, Cranston, Central Falls, Woonsocket and Pawtucket. The program is aimed at teachers who have an interest in teaching English learners but are worried about the cost of returning to school. (Projo, 9/29/16)
The application process for these 60 slots was competitive, and 17 Providence teachers have been chosen to participate. This is welcome news for those of us who see firsthand the need for trained ESL and Dual Language educators in our schools. We are grateful for the investment and collaboration.
That’s Not All
Another bright spot this past year was when Governor Gina Raimondo took the long overdue step of including funds dedicated to ELLS into the 2016-17 budget. Previously, Rhode Island was one of only four states that had not made a budgetary commitment to funding to this critical need. This new funding will allow the district to provide innovative programs and supports in order to serve the culturally and linguistically diverse students enrolled in Providence Public Schools.
These recent developments represent steps in the right direction, but we must acknowledge that the journey has just begun. As long as our ELL population continues to grow, our educational investments in that population will need to keep pace. That means creating greater incentives for teachers to become ESL and Dual Language certified. It also means cultivating a pipeline of future ESL and Dual Language educators from high school through teacher prep in college and back into our classrooms as tea. And it means more (and better) professional development for all teachers. With more than a quarter of students in our district identified as English Learners and more than 60 percent coming from homes where English is not the primary language, all of our educators must understand and be able to address the language-development needs of the students before them. Teachers in all subjects will need more tools, such as sheltered instruction training, to reach these children in meaningful and effective ways.
Lastly, all of us need to think deeply about how we view non-native English speakers in our schools. Frequently, students who arrive in our classrooms speaking another language may be viewed as having a learning deficit because they don’t speak English. In reality they bring with them a variety of language and cultural assets that we should recognize and appreciate. As the future economy becomes more global, the future workforce will need to be bilingual and multilingual. If nurtured properly, what has for far too long seen as a deficit will instead be seen as the strength that catapults our ELL graduates to success.
Soledad Barreto is the Director of Language Acquisition for the Providence Public Schools