URI School of Education exceeds expectations with ESL teacher training program

More than 40 graduates in master’s and certificate program in two years to aid English learners

Posted on
Twenty teachers from elementary and middle schools around R.I. attend a wrap-up meeting for a URI School of Education program providing strategies to support English learners in mathematics. Front row from left: Christine Wirth, Margaret Ratcliffe, Leela Ballah, Sarah Krassner, Shane Morgenweck and Crista Robichaud. Back row from left: Lecturer Amy Correia, Kourtny Gray, Anna Nuhn, Jackie Perry, Taryn Hume, Tom Heston, Alysa Pearson, Lee-Ann Solas, Kristine DeComo and Rosemary Cardoza.

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 1, 2018 – When Kassandra Marulanda earns her degree next spring, she will be among a new breed of University of Rhode Island education graduates.

Marulanda will be among the first group of undergraduates to complete the rigorous Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification on top of their primary education degree – preparing them to support the fastest-growing population of students in the nation.

The Cranston, Rhode Island resident was inspired to pursue the additional language certification because of her own experience in an English as a second language program as a child. “As I grew up, I began to have some negative experiences in school because of the second language,” said Marulanda, a double major in elementary education and Spanish. “I want to go out there and make a difference in the outlook of students with a different native language and in ESL programs as a whole.”

The new certificate program was offered to teachers in the state in 2016 with the launch of the School of Education’s master’s program in TESOL and Bilingual and Dual Language Immersion, and the following year to undergraduates. Currently, the program has 17 undergraduates expected to graduate in 2019 or 2020.

With English learners making up about 10 percent of the public-school population nationally, URI’s efforts to train teachers to support this important cohort has shown rapid success in a short time. Just over two years into the program, more than 40 teachers who have earned a full master’s degree or certification are working with English learners in schools around the state. And about an equal number are expected to graduate by 2020.

“We have 85 people who have completed or are in the process of completing the program, and this is only our fifth semester,” said Amy Correia, who has coordinated the program since its inception. “I’m really happy that so many teachers are deciding to pursue certification and learn instructional strategies to support English learners. We’ve had partnerships with 11 different school districts in the state already to support teachers in the program.”

URI’s commitment to preparing teachers to work with English learners, isn’t new. For more than 25 years, the School of Education has offered a language endorsement that teachers could add to their base certification. Advocates such as JoAnn Hammadou-Sullivan, retired professor of world languages, have championed expanding the program, and in recent years the need has been amplified.

In the last decade, the number of ESL students has grown nationally by approximately 60 percent, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution paper. In Rhode Island, 8 percent of the state’s 141,000 students are English learners, according to the 2018 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. At the same time, ESL students lag their native English peers in achievement, and preparation of teachers to support the growing population has failed to keep pace.

Creating the Master’s Program

“Creating the master’s program was kind of a social justice agenda,” said David Byrd, director of the School of Education. “This is a real need within Rhode Island – we seem to be lagging behind other states – and we’re a land grant institution. We’re supposed to do community-based initiatives.”

A $140,000 grant from the Rhode Island Foundation helped jumpstart the program, and the robust initiative was begun in fall 2016 with the online TESOL/BDL master’s program, said Correia, an instructor in the program along with Assistant Professor Rabia Hos, who was hired this fall.

Also, the School of Education partnered with five urban districts with the largest populations of English learners in the state. Funding from the grant and districts combined to cover about two thirds of the tuition for district teachers entering the program. Further curtailing student costs, URI offers the 10-course master’s program at reduced tuition – a savings of about $800 per class, or about $8,000 over the entire program – with tuition the same for in-state and out-of-state students. In fall 2016, the program began with 27 students.

“That really opened the door for people to know we’re here,” Correia said. “After that, we started getting inquiries from people who had heard about colleagues taking the program.”

In 2017, the program got another boost from a grant written by Director Byrd and faculty members Correia, Peter Adamy, and Nicole Hersey. The $326,000 Title II grant from the Rhode Island Office of the Postsecondary Commissioner provided funding to train teachers working with English learners in mathematics. In addition to program scholarships for enrollment in the master of arts in TESOL/Dual Language, 20 teachers from elementary and middle schools around the state attended an intensive five-day workshop this summer on the Kingston Campus led by Cornelis de Groot, professor of secondary education.

When Marulanda graduates next year, she will leave with a certificate in dual-language immersion, along with TESOL certification. The coursework to attain both has been demanding, she said. Along with six master’s level classes and a teaching practicum for the TESOL designation, Marulanda took another class and put in more student-teaching hours for the dual-language certificate.

“I am continuing to push through semester by semester. I will not lie, it has been very tough the last two years.” said Marulanda, who after graduation hopes to find a program in which she can travel and teach ESL in other countries.

Senior Eric Bergen, of Marlborough, Conn., was inspired to pursue TESOL certification by the 2013 documentary “Living on One Dollar” and the work of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, along with a desire to help eliminate language barriers. “These inspirations showed me the need for equal access to education around the world,” said Bergen, an elementary education major. “Here in the U.S., that struggle is reflected through the struggle English learners have every day trying to acquire language so they can succeed.”

Bergen, who plans to teach in an urban school district in New York City, Boston or Washington, D.C., says the TESOL program has been very rigorous, forcing students to look critically at the world. “I have learned to manage a classroom effectively,” he said. “I have learned researched-based practices that are effective at teaching English learners.”

Kara Haberman, who will also graduate next spring with a degree in elementary education and TESOL certification, said the program has not only prepared her to work with English learners, but has improved her skills for working with all students. While it’s been challenging, she’s proud to be on schedule to complete the program on time. The online classes, she said, have made the program more convenient. “I would have loved to meet as a class because my classmates and professor Correia have so many great ideas about teaching English as a second language,” said the Long Island resident, “but my classmates have always been awesome at providing feedback.”

Anna Nuhn, who teaches third grade at Blackstone Valley Prep in Cumberland, expects to graduate this spring with a master’s in TESOL. As an elementary school teacher, Nuhn leads 28 students in all content areas, and has a number of English learners in her class. After her first year at the school – her first year teaching after graduating from Salve Regina University – she wanted to do more to ensure all her students were “equipped with the tools to succeed,” she said.

“From the first course I took, I started to see just how essential it is to not only incorporate a variety of strategies but to also seek to understand the background and history of all learners,” said Nuhn, who also took part in the summer math institute. “Each scholar is different and language learners have a wealth of skills and strengths that can be leveraged to aid in learning English while still incorporating their unique skill-set and experiences.”

Tom Heston, in his fifth year of teaching since graduating from Rhode Island College, pursued the TESOL master’s degree with an eye toward his career, along with adding classroom skills. “My career goal is to teach at the collegiate level,” said Heston, a first-grade teacher at Harris Elementary School in Woonsocket, “so to pursue the master’s seemed like the next logical step to support my professional growth.” He’s scheduled to receive his master’s next spring.

Heston has also built strategies for working with English learners. “One particularly helpful exercise I have implemented is reviewing my materials and methods of instruction and really analyzing the language I use, considering how certain words, phrases and expressions might be lost on English-language learners.”

The School of Education is accepting scholarship applications – through Nov. 15 – for students entering the master’s program in spring 2019. The eight scholarships are funded through the R.I. Foundation grant.