National Louis University Awarded Grant to Build Multilingual Network
By Robert Schroeder
Describing Niles, Ill. as a melting pot is an understatement.
More than 60 languages are represented. Nearly 45 percent of households speak a language other than English; only a small number are of Hispanic origin. In the Chicagoland area, the township features the largest growing population of immigrants and refugees.
The melting pot bubbles out unique challenges for the area's school districts, namely how to successfully provide English language learner education for a wide variety of languages.
National Louis University is leading a new charge to build the district's language acquisition capabilities. On September 7, the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition awarded National Louis University a grant of more than $1.7 million over five years to fund professional development for English Language Learner programs in the Niles Township districts. The grant will foster the development of a multilingual schools network, with a particular focus on ELL student improvement in science, technology, engineering and math.
The grant brings together Skokie School District 73.5, Niles Township School Districts 68, 73.5 and 219, and community resources including the Niles Township ELL Parent Center and the Illinois Resource Center. Leveraging University faculty in the National College of Education, the project aims to improve the preparation of pre-service and in-service teachers, paraprofessionals and teacher preparation faculty in ELL instruction.
The project is a direct response to test scores in the districts, which indicate ELL students are falling behind other learners in science and math, despite the overall quality of science and math programs.
"You bring learning communities that exist in schools, take them out of their context and bring them to a district-wide level and help share practice," said Tina Nolan, Ed.D., associate director of partnerships. "What we aim to do is add a set of voices to that idea that don't currently exist; those voices represent people responsible for student success in the classroom who are not in the school building."
National Louis University will provide three cohorts for in-service teaching seeking ESL or bilingual approvals, with a special focus on science and math. The courses will be taught by faculty who themselves will engage in professional development in ELL science and math. Preparing teachers to teach science and math to ELL students is one part mechanics, one part understanding the subjects in their cultural background. Many students come from homes where the Celsius scale is used, periods take the place of commas in grouping numbers, and for a small number, words are read from right to left.
"The whole trend in math is towards more story problems that are very language heavy," said Kristin Lems, Ph.D., professor in the National College of Education and project co-director. "With requirements to show reasoning behind work, there are big gaps that need to be filled in with very systematic training of language and content strategy."
Faculty and the University's Center for Academic Development will recruit and train parents and lay persons to become certified paraprofessionals to assist in ELL classrooms, as well as providing training to districts on best practices for incorporating paraprofessionals. The Niles Township ELL Parent Center will be a critical resource in recruiting paraprofessionals and providing cultural context. Formed in 2008 by the Niles Township Superintendents' Association, the center helps parents of foreign origin navigate the U.S. educational system.
"We're learning from parents and families and communities that you can build on some of these cultural experiences [in the home] in classrooms," said Jason Stegemoller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the National College of Education and project co-director. "We are hoping to build…instructional congruence, connecting the academic language and content with the students' language and cultural experiences to make content accessible, relatable and meaningful."
National Louis will build the ELL Parent Center's database of qualitative data, with Michael Shriner, Ph.D., assistant professor in the National College of Education, providing the Center's first-ever statistical review of efficiency.
Nolan says National Louis is building a model that can be replicated in other multilingual networks. The University is strengthening its capacity to build strong ELL schools by creating a networked approach.
"We aim to seek out through some of our existing partnerships with NCE other multilingual school districts to bring them to the network so they can learn from each other and share tools, practices and systems across different settings," Nolan said. "We're combining the best practices of partnerships for learning and the best practices in networked learning communities in school districts and pairing them together.
"That's what makes this unique."