A $2.7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will make it easier for three Missouri districts to meet new federal accountability metrics for students learning English.
The grant allows Webster University to provide free English-language learner certification training to 120 teachers at Ritenour, Parkway and St. Louis Public Schools.
Those three districts have a lot of students who recently moved to the United States and need to learn how to speak and write English. But the St. Louis area has needed more certified teachers for five to 10 years, according to Webster associate professor DJ Kaiser.
“Right now, in terms of percentages, Ritenour has the highest percentage of English-language learners, St. Louis Public Schools has the largest number, and I know that Parkway Schools, they’re seeing — it’s a very fast increase,” Kaiser said.
About 14 percent of students in the Ritenour School District in northwest St. Louis County are learning English.
The district dedicated a wing of Hoech Middle School for English as a Second Language students three years ago, where they’re taught all subjects by ESL specialists. Assistant Superintendent Julie Hahn said most of those students speak Spanish at home.
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to hold districts accountable for how quickly students learn English and tracks the academic performance of ESL students for four years after they’re considered proficient.
ESSA’s requirements add urgency to Ritenour’s efforts to increase their number of certified teachers, said Hahn, who oversees the district’s English-language learner programs. She said Missouri already requires districts to measure English proficiency, but tracking the students for an extended amount of time will require more work.
“The bar is getting a little bit higher and a little bit harder, and I think that will require our teachers to push even more, and so again, with this grant, the hope is that we have all of the right people, and enough people, to make sure that happens,” Hahn said.
St. Louis Public Schools added about 700 English-language learners last school year; the district has about 2,700 students who speak one or more of 40-plus languages.
ESSA increases the amount of time schools are held accountable for the progress of students learning English, but it doesn’t increase the need for certified teachers at SLPS, English-language learner program director Alla Gonzalez Del Castillo said.
She also said it’s important to make sure students learning English have the support they need because they have to focus on both learning the content and the language, which “makes this process much more complex and more difficult for teachers to be able to address.”
In the Parkway district, the grant will be used to train regular classroom teachers, curriculum coordinator Patrick Shelton said. That’s because the number of ESL students in the district has increased by about 60 percent over the past five years.
“The impact of our EL (English language) specialists is limited because they’re not with those students every day, every hour. They see them on an intermittent basis as schedules allow, and so we know the power of what’s going to happen when students come in the classroom,” Shelton said.
Ritenour and St. Louis also plan to use the grant to get regular classroom teachers certified to teach English-language learners, although they also expect to need more specialists in the future.
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