ESL STEM Success Grant effort makes headway in first year

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September 13, 2012

By Mark Donahue

In Illinois' massively multicultural Niles Township, schools face some unique challenges.

Like any community, the task of providing high-quality education to students is something teachers and administrators confront on a daily basis. But there's a twist. In an area that includes Skokie, Lincolnwood, Morton Grove and Niles, more than 50 languages are spoken. And many students come from homes where English is not spoken first.

"There might be a bilingual program for one of the languages and then there's scattershot programs for the smaller languages, so things might not be translated as much for the families of, say, the Mongolian students or the Bosnian students," said Kristin Lems, Ph.D., professor in the National College of Education (NCE) at National Louis University.

Lems is deeply aware of what faces educators in Niles Township's 10 school districts. She's the co-director of an NLU initiative — funded by a government grant — to help administrators, teachers and paraprofessionals better guide the township's many English Language Learners (ELLs) in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Additionally, the grant is being used to instruct NLU English as a Second Language (ESL) adjuncts in the language of the STEM subjects and train NLU teacher education faculty in the basics of ELLs and their needs.

The ESL STEM grant effort is now in its second year, and Lems said things are looking good as the NLU team gets "the lay of the land" in Niles Township.

She's joined in work on the grant by co-director Jason Stegemoller, Ph.D., assistant professor in the NCE, and project coordinator Annie Noorts. Noorts said the NLU team wants to promote a culture of change in the township's schools — one that further benefits ELLs.

"It's trying to get into the schools at all the levels, so the paraprofessionals who are aides, trying to get more of them into the schools who speak the languages of the kids," Noorts said. "Trying to improve the way the teachers teach the students. And the way the administrators handle it."

Preparing Teachers

NLU was awarded the $1.765 million ESL STEM grant in September 2011 by the U.S. Department of Education Office of English Language Acquisition. It covers a five-year span of professional development for teachers and paraprofessionals, who come from three school districts — Skokie 68 and 73.5 and Niles Township 219 — and two other partners — the Niles Township Schools' ELL Parent Center and the Illinois Resource Center.

The grant is part of a national initiative to strengthen the STEM aspect of English language teaching, Lems said, because statistics have shown that ELLs aren't doing well in STEM subjects. She stresses that it's a language grant and not a science grant, but content is deeply linked to any language instruction.

"English teaching is not like simulated dialogues pretending you're at a hot dog stand anymore," Lems said. "It's about teaching the content to a level the students can really function at a level comparable to their peers."

One of the top priorities, she said, is to train Niles Township teachers so they can get ESL approval. Professional development is on the cohort system, with each cohort receiving six courses over the course of two years. All tuition is covered by the grant. Each partner school district is given spaces for 20 teachers to go through training over the course of the grant.

Superintendents vet their faculty to select candidates. The ability to speak a language other than English is key, and STEM teachers are preferred, though not all teachers going through the training teach math or science. But Noorts noted that the latest cohort with District 219 includes almost all math and science teachers.

Lems, who has taught some of the graduate courses, said a mix of educators' grade levels inside the cohorts has led to some interesting cross-fertilization of ideas, from big-picture views of how an ELL student progresses through each stage of education to the everyday methods for handling a multilingual classroom.

The multilingual nature of NLU's effort sets it apart, and Lems believes it's the reason her team's grant proposal was so highly ranked — 13th out of the 42 institutions receiving funds. She sees the many languages in Niles Township not just as a challenge for educators, but as an opportunity to experience a bit of the whole world right in the classroom.

A View from the Schools

School administrators in the township are very aware of the challenges and opportunities multiple languages bring to their districts.

"Multilingual schools are becoming more common, particularly in Niles Township," said Dr. Frances McTague, superintendent of Skokie School District 68. "So we're a very good testing ground for professional development and programming options that could be used as a model across the state and the country as other suburban districts see this kind of diversity occurring."

District 68 is an elementary school district that comprises three K-5 schools and one 6-8, with just over 1700 students enrolled. Children from the south Asian subcontinent are now the biggest group, McTague said, and more than 50 languages are represented among the student body. Urdu is the largest language group, followed by Spanish and Assyrian.

This melting pot of students was a driving factor in District 68 reaching out to NLU to become part of the ESL STEM grant proposal when word of the project got out, McTague said. "It really sprang from an interest in how schools can offer ELL and bilingual services when we are not dealing with one predominant language," she said.

McTague added that Illinois state laws governing how bilingual education services are delivered are based on decades-old demographics and have put administrators like her in a tight spot. For example, if 20 students in a school, regardless of grade level, speak the same first language, the school is required to offer bilingual programming in that language. It becomes a nightmare in terms of staffing and resources.

So the chance to have more faculty certified in ESL has huge upside for administrators in multilingual districts, McTague said, and she's gotten good feedback from her teachers about NLU's professional development effort.

"I'm hearing from the faculty who are in these endorsement programs now that they wish everybody could have this opportunity, that they're learning so much about the development of language and literacy, and that the program is challenging and rigorous and really interesting," she added.

McTague said her district has 10 teachers in the first cohort, six in the second and will have upwards of six in the third, starting next fall. All of the teachers she has selected for the scholarship have some relationship to STEM subjects, and though they won't be teaching ESL programs directly, they'll all work with children who have a different first language or whose family speaks another language at home.

She added that once the first cohort is finished, there will be an evaluation component in her district to gauge the effects of NLU's training.

Another aspect of the grant that appeals to McTague is that administrators and ELL coordinators also have a chance to get together as part of the effort. This administrator task force meets to discuss the biggest challenges they face at their level, from a lack of instructional materials in certain languages to how to interpret achievement scores of students of the same first language.

Having those running the schools onboard with any ELL program's goals is vital. But just as critical is a factor that's harder to manage: understanding the environment of the student's home.

A View from the Community

Families are a big piece of the puzzle when trying to better serve English language learners. Corrie Wallace, director of the Niles Township Schools' ELL Parents Center and a member of the first grant cohort, knows this very well.

The center was created in 2008 after superintendents in Niles Township decided to address the needs of parents new to the U.S. by helping them navigate the school system and better understand what's required of their children. The center also serves as a place for adults to learn English and find other resources for their families. It is funded by nine of the 10 school districts in the township.

Wallace, who has a background as a high school Spanish teacher, said the language groups encountered at the center are as diverse as you'd expect for the area.

"It's like the United Nations: Korean, Hindi, Urdu, Assyrian, Spanish, Polish, Russian. We have everything," she said.

Based on some past collaboration between the center and NLU, Wallace jumped at the chance to become part of the ESL STEM grant effort when she heard about it. The center has since been a centerpiece of the grant and offers classes for adults — everything from health education to intensive English instruction. These classes are tailored around parents' schedules and are free not only for parents but also grandparents or any adult living with a child in the participating schools. Childcare is provided onsite.

In addition to her work leading the center, Wallace now chairs the grant's administrator task force. At the same time, she'll help the NLU team form a deeper understanding of the role of the parents of students in the districts in helping their children succeed.

Wallace and Stegemoller recently held a meeting at the center with parents who had been teachers or math and science professionals in their home countries. They were recruited by the grant to learn about becoming paraprofessionals — teacher aides, assistant teachers, etc. — in the schools and helping children with different language needs.

"They would be great resources because they have expertise in the various STEM subject areas," Wallace said. "But then of course their language, being able to share that with students who are bilingual as well, as a resource, is a huge support."

The enthusiasm of parents like these could prove to be an invaluable asset in servicing ELL learners. It's something NLU's grant team has been watching closely.

Key Links

The role of paraprofessionals was accounted for when NLU first drew up its grant proposal, but they will see even more attention as the second year of the STEM grant unfolds.

Stegemoller said the NLU team spent the first year exploring how teachers work with paraprofessionals as well as the nature of the tasks they perform. The goal for year two will be to increase the number of ESL-trained paraprofessionals and help them get jobs in schools. The ELL Parent Center could identify and route interested candidates to NLU's professional development program.

For students in smaller ethnic groups, having someone in class who understands their language and can work with them on a more individualized basis could be a huge help in increasing their understanding of how the school system works and the academic habits they need to achieve success in the STEM subjects.

Lems singled out Assyrian children — an underrepresented group in Niles Township, many of whom have come from the aftermath of war in Iraq. Paraprofessionals who speak Assyrian could be a bridge to success in the classroom for these students.

"That's kind of a key link in a multilingual district," Lems said. "It can make all the difference for the kids."

Along with NLU's ramped-up training for paraprofessionals, Wallace said she would also look at ways to better match up newly certified assistants with schools.

What's Next?

The second year will be a busy one for NLU's ESL STEM grant team. They've already presented at four conferences and have proposals out for more. Lems said they plan to offer Perfect Match training through the Illinois Resource Center to team up administrators and teachers to better serve ELLs. And there are plans to build a circulating resource center of learning materials to help improve the teaching of ESL and STEM subjects.

Lems also said the team is looking at other grant opportunities, including a proposal for a program that would help paraprofessionals go on to get their teaching certificates, and a mentorship program for middle/high school students that would guide them to NLU to obtain their teaching degrees so they can return to their own districts and teach.

Beyond this, the NLU team is looking at ways to measure the effects of their current work in Niles Township.

"Really we're kind of looking at this from the level of teachers," Stegemoller said. "And so really the way we would see our success is the number of science and math teachers, especially ones who speak languages in addition to English, who also have the ESL approval."

That's a very clear metric. And Lems said the team also wants to look at whether more ELLs get into advanced placement STEM classes in high school, as well as how many community members speaking another language become paraprofessionals.

The big-picture hope, Lems said, is to affect a system-wide change in the schools to better serve ELLs. She believes the multi-level nature of NLU's approach can go a long way toward making that a reality.

"What happens," Lems said, "is when it's approached from many different points of entry, the whole culture in the district changes."

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