Local teachers are getting some much-needed training for working with English language learners in their schools thanks to a special program at Claflin University.
The ELL Center, funded in part through a grant from the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education, welcomes teachers who have been recommended by their districts to attend 40 hours of training throughout the year that helps them teach ELL students.
“This is professional training for teachers in four school districts,” said Dr. Nan Li, an associate professor of education at Claflin and project director for the ELL Center. “They are mainstream teachers, but all teachers have ELL students in the classroom.”
Dr. Li said statistics show that the English language learner student population in South Carolina increased more than 700 percent from 1995 to 2005, nearly seven times the national average.
“Teachers don’t have a program to provide them with professional development to work with ELL populations, so that’s why we wrote a proposal to get funded,” Dr. Li said.
Claflin’s ELL Center kicked off its third year with a welcome session on campus in October. Training for teachers began Oct. 5.
Forty-eight teachers from Orangeburg Consolidated School Districts Three and Five, Calhoun County School District and Bamberg County School District Two will attend 10 training days on the Claflin campus this academic year. The next sessions are Tuesdays and Thursdays, Jan. 20-31, in Ministers’ Hall.
Dr. Li said so far, 96 teachers from Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg school districts have gone through the ELL Center, where they learn second language theory and hands-on strategies for the classroom. After completing the training, participating teachers earn ELL Center Certification.
Dr. Paula Gregg, who serves as the SCCHE’s program manager for P20 initiatives – those programs that work with in-service or pre-service teachers to provide professional development opportunities for increasing student achievement, said Claflin’s ELL Center is just one of the projects the Commission helps fund.
“We give up to $150,000 the first year, and they’re funded for up to five years,” she said. Funding begins to drop off the second year, and in years three through five, the projects receive only 75 percent of the original grant amount.
“The goal is that they start becoming self-sustaining so they can continue the centers once we finish with our funding,” Dr. Gregg said, adding that each center has a different focus. She said the hope is for each to “become a state-of-the-art center where you can share things around the state.”
Claflin’s ELL Center is among four statewide that are currently being funded by the SCCHE.
“We’ve had 24 centers funded since we started, and we still have 17 active centers,” Dr. Gregg continued. “Our original center at Clemson University (which started in 1993) is still going strong.”
OCSD Five English as a second language teacher Deena Fogle said the ELL Center has been helpful for the district’s educators.
“Some of the most important aspects of the training would be that the teachers are getting strategies to use with the students, and they’re actually seeing them modeled,” she said. “They are learning some theory, and they are learning some research, which is important.
“They find out more about second language acquisition, and if they don’t have that background, if they don’t know a lot about the students’ background, some of this information helps them to better understand what the child might be going through.”
Fogle said the great thing about the strategies is that they work for all students, not just English language learners.
“It helps all children,” she said. “The teachers not only are getting all of this information, they’re getting it from a variety of sources, because there are a variety of speakers that come in and talk and share. They can take that information back to the classroom and have real, concrete things that they can do with the students.”
Fogle is one of only two ESL teachers for OCSD Five, and she said that as of September, the district had 160 ESL students, including those who speak Spanish, Chinese, Filipino and French.
Having mainstream teachers who are trained to work with non-English-speaking students is a tremendous asset, she said.
“We cannot be in the classroom all day long with the English language learners,” Fogle said. “Our district is an immersion program – we’re not a bilingual program – which means those students are immersed in English all day long in the classroom. They’re tested in English, so for the most part everything we do with them is in English.
“A lot of times, we assume that they don’t understand when they’re quiet or they’re silent. They’re absorbing it, they’re taking it in.”
Teachers, she said, need to understand that academic language is much harder than social language for ELL students to learn.
“Sometimes we’ll think that because we see them talking a little bit to their classmates that they understand, but they might understand some of that social language,” she said. “Those are survival skills. But when it comes to vocabulary and science and social studies, that’s harder, and it takes longer to learn.”
Holly Hill-Roberts Middle School STEM lab teacher Cheryl Milford is returning this year to share her reflections with Claflin education majors as part of another nearly $1.5 million grant that the ELL Center receives from the U.S. Department of Education.
“It’s wonderful,” she said. “I really did learn a lot and I’m using it, and it works. I would recommend it to everyone.”