Imagine sitting in a classroom in Russia, China or Japan taking a test that will determine whether or not you graduate from high school. Now imagine taking that test in a language other than English.

Susan Spezzini (far right) works with Donna Gilbert (far left) of Jackson-Olin High School and Tamika Lamb (center) of Center Street Middle School at a recent class for English language-learning instructors. Spezzini and Julia Auston (standing in background) are creating models of sheltered instruction using two five-year federal grants for ESL training.

Millions of English as a Second Language (ESL) students in the United States have similar experiences every day.

“Think of English language learners as cars trying to merge on the interstate where people are going 80 miles per hour,” says Julia Austin, Ph.D. “You’re trying to catch up to that person you were just beside.

They keep going, and you’re trying to get up to speed. I think that’s a really good way for people to think about what these students here in our state are facing.”

Austin and Susan Spezzini, Ph.D., are co-principal investigators on two five-year federal grants for ESL training for teachers in the Shelby County and Homewood City Schools. They are creating models of sheltered instruction for English language learning students that can be used by other school districts.

The technique is called sheltered instruction because the students receiving it do not compete academically with native English speakers. Sheltered instruction has two goals: To teach both academic content – history, science and math, for example – while helping students to develop their English language skills. Teachers use physical activities, visual aids and the environment to teach important new words for concept development. The technique enables students to progress in all their subjects while learning English; research shows that it is effective in helping students become proficient in English, develop high levels of academic attainment and meet challenging state standards.

Shelby County and Homewood City Schools are the ideal systems to begin this training, Austin says.

“They are two different systems. One is a very small, very diverse, city system, and one is a large suburban/rural system that has the largest number of English language-learning students in the state,” Austin says. “We certainly hope and believe these two school systems will become models for the state in sheltered instruction.”

Teachers in grades 4-12 will take courses at UAB to learn to support English language development for children while they are learning content subjects like math, social studies or science.

Two goals
Shelby County and Homewood City Schools feature mostly Spanish-speaking students among the English language learners.

Research for the grant revealed:
• Shelby County has had 59 languages represented in its school system in one year.
• Almost 80 percent of those students were Spanish-speaking.
• Twenty-three percent of Homewood’s English language learners at the middle and high school speak Arabic.
• Sixty percent of Homewood’s English language learning students speak Spanish.

Shelby County’s school system began accommodating these students several years ago, Austin and Spezzini say. It has gone from fewer than six ESL teachers to almost 60 in six years – an average of almost two per school; some schools have as many as six.

The challenge for these schools has been finding a way to teach the students math, history and science while they are learning a new language. These two programs will help.

The UAB School of Education received $1.13 million in funding to create the Sheltered Teaching Accommodations for Reaching Success (STARS) program for Shelby County schools and a $1.25 million grant for Project HEART (Homewood Educators Accommodating Reading and Teaching).

“It’s not something that just happens overnight,” Austin says. “There are techniques and strategies that can help them be successful. And it helps all of us if they’re successful.”

Benefits for teachers
The predecessor to the STARS and Project HEART grants was Project EQUAL, a five-year collaborative effort between Shelby County School System and UAB to provide equal access to education to all students.

The focus of the new grants is on training secondary teachers with no ESL-teaching experience. Sixty-five Shelby County teachers in grades 4-12 and 40 Homewood teachers in grades 6-12 who specialize in specific subjects are eligible to take four ESL teacher-preparation courses at UAB beginning in January.

Spezzini says UAB is trying to make the program attractive to the teachers by allowing them to count two or three of these classes toward a master’s degree in secondary education.

“Based on input that we received from secondary teachers in Project EQUAL, we decided to offer four courses. We are now working with our colleagues in the School of Education to see if some of thee courses could count toward the master’s that teachers want, which is a master’s in secondary education,” Spezzini says. “That’s part of our goal in Shelby STARS and Project HEART.”

Eighty percent of both Shelby County teachers in schools with mid to high numbers of English language learners and Homewood City teachers will participate in ESL professional development workshops. Bilingual aides in Shelby County and Homewood City Schools can take UAB coursework for English language-learning teacher certification, and professional development workshops will be held for 80 percent of all Shelby County and Homewood City counselors and administrators.

In addition, thirty-two area college and university faculty members who provide teacher training will receive assistance in incorporating sheltered instruction in their curriculum.

All classes begin in January.

“Often in classes that are text-heavy, sheltered instruction is beneficial to the English language learners, at-risk students and the teachers,” Spezzini says. “Sheltered instruction can improve a teacher’s delivery and helps them move away from just lecturing to take a more hands-on approach.”