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As numbers of multilingual students rises, finding teachers for them becomes a priority

A Towson University program prepares educators to teach the fastest-growing population in the nation’s public schools

First-grade teacher Chelsea Massa, seen working with students in a Monarch Academy Annapolis classroom, incorporates co-teaching strategies in class to help multilingual students improve their proficiency in English. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

At Monarch Academy Annapolis, first-grade teachers Chelsea Massa and Shantille Stohl have a special way of teaching the class facts about the migration of monarch butterflies.

While Stohl describes the journey of the group of butterflies to Mexico, Massa interjects to incorporate Spanish words and sounds into the narration.

“This is the word ‘population’ in English,” Massa says to her class of masked first-graders, as she holds up a card with the word on it.

“And this is the word ‘población’ in Spanish,” she says, holding up a card in her other hand.

In a class where almost half of the students are multilingual learners who speak Spanish at home, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) teacher and a classroom teacher working together should not be unusual. Co-teaching has proved an effective way to help non-English speakers become more proficient in the English language.

But finding enough ESOL teachers to meet the growing demand has been a challenge. As of 2017, the number of multilingual learners in the United States had increased by 60 percent over the past decade, making the group the fastest-growing population in the nation’s public schools, according to a Brookings Institution report.

Nationwide, 5 million students are learning English and participating in some sort of language assistance program, but the number of qualified teachers has yet to satisfy those growing numbers. The multilingual learners are also the lowest-performing group based on graduation rates and tests, according to government reports, making the need for effective English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers greater than ever.

To address this need on a short- and long-term basis, one Maryland program was recently awarded a $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Education Department to support teachers who are already working with ESL students and to expand the number of educators in the state who are certified to serve them.

The program, ELEVATE, is a Towson University College of Education initiative to train teachers through partnerships with six schools in the Anne Arundel County public school district selected because of their high number of ESL students.

“The more that we can give teachers specific skills to support the specific needs of this population, the better outcomes we will see,” Patricia Rice Doran, principal researcher at ELEVATE, said in an interview.

At Monarch Academy Annapolis, a contract school serving students in pre-K through fifth grade, the ESOL educators and Towson’s College of Education team meet once a week for professional development training targeted to improve the education of the 90 English-language learners (ELL) receiving services in the school.

“Our ELL population in the county is growing, and all teachers at some point are going to have an English learner in the classroom,” said Massa, who is part of the ESOL team receiving training at Monarch Academy.

“They need to know what makes that student unique, how can I meet their needs, and also make sure that they’re being heard and understood in the appropriate way,” she said.

At Monarch, rather than pull English-language learners in kindergarten through third grade out of class for special instruction, an ESOL specialist and a classroom teacher collaborate in one classroom and develop lesson plans that integrate language and literacy development tools to help the English learners access and understand new content. With funding through a related grant awarded in 2017, the school will also start a take-home bilingual book club to provide books in English and Spanish for the 188 families who speak Spanish at home.

Through the 2017 grant, the project has already served more than 70 undergraduate and 17 graduate students, in addition to over 250 in-service teachers who received ESOL-focused professional development. The new five-year grant will benefit more than 300 people, including families with English-language learners, 32 in-service teachers and 96 undergraduate students seeking ESOL certification.

The newly qualified teachers can’t arrive soon enough.

The U.S. Education Department reported a shortage of ESL teachers in all grade levels (pre-K-12) in Maryland and D.C. as of the 2021-2022 school year — and a shortage in Virginia as of the 2019-2020 school year. Nationwide, 32 states reported ESL teacher shortages this school year.

Students learning English struggled to participate on equal terms in the classroom even before the pandemic started, but virtual learning prompted by the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. According to a Maryland Department of Education report in August, 88,838 students — 10.8 percent of the student population — are English-language learners. The highest percent of English learners in Maryland’s school systems are in Prince George’s County (21.5 percent) and Montgomery County (16.8 percent). Seventy percent of the multilingual students in Maryland speak Spanish.

Encouraging families to speak their first language at home is also a priority for schools and researchers working with multilingual students. Strong foundations in their native language help students succeed in other languages and, most important, it is better for the socio-emotional well-being of the student and the community, experts at Towson said.

“Multilingual learners and their families are assets that we can learn from. We want to value that rather than looking at a student and thinking, ‘How can I make them more like everybody else?’” said Rice Doran.

The Towson program is filling in gaps that exist both when university students are preparing to become teachers and after they are already working at a school. Towson professors found that many teachers, once they began their careers, didn’t receive instruction on how to teach English learners and the benefits of bilingual education and home language. And in college, students didn’t have classes in their curriculum to explore how to support multilingual learners.

Lynnett Hernandez, 21, an undergraduate student at Towson majoring in early-childhood and special education, is also completing coursework to obtain an ESOL certification through the existing federal grant. Hernandez, who is Salvadoran American, said her upbringing in a bilingual household inspired her to help multilingual students become successful.

Over the semester, she has learned teaching strategies and worked on ways to develop strong relationships with families, including providing socio-emotional support for those who have experienced learning loss and challenges at home.

“We really learned that we never know how much knowledge or potential a child can hold until we can fully accommodate and break down language barriers in the classroom,” Hernandez said.