Increasing Language and Literacy Outcomes for Latino English Learners
The classroom is changing.
According to the most recent Census, the Latino population in the U.S. grew 43 percent in the last 10 years, accounting for more than half of the nation’s growth during that time. What’s more, Latinos are the largest U.S. minority group, and more than 4.4 million students in public schools are English language learners.
In North Carolina, this population growth has brought with it unique civic challenges and opportunities. Cultural differences and language barriers have been exacerbated by statewide cuts in education. While teachers receive intensive pre-service training, the majority of classroom teachers have not been afforded specialized training for English as a Second Language (ESL).
For a demographic that faces a greater risk of dropping out, and a persistent achievement gap in math and reading, one Bass Connections in Education and Human Development research project team is creating a teacher professional development program to support teaching practices that increase language and literacy outcomes for Latino English learners.
Supporting Teachers in Local Schools
Classroom teachers have traditionally worked with ESL teachers to provide support for students through a pull-out model, with students pulled from the classroom for specialized language intervention. Although some local schools are using push-in or co-teaching models, teachers receive little instruction in how to form a professional collaboration with other teachers.
For Leslie Babinski, assistant research professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy and associate director at the Center for Child and Family Policy, the pull-out model did not seem like an optimal use of teacher expertise—something especially concerning now that teachers in North Carolina are facing shortages, spending cuts and other drains on resources.
“Students who were English learners and qualified for services were attending the regular classroom most of the day and then getting pulled out for specific instruction in English,” Babinski said.
“Our idea was that you can leverage the work of what’s happening in the regular classroom to support language learning, particularly in kindergarten, first and second grade because all students are language learners at that point, even native English speakers.”
Babinski’s Bass Connections team, Promoting Academic Success for Latino English Learners in Elementary School, exists as part of a larger team of researchers from the University of Delaware and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that’s known as Developing Consultation and Collaboration Skills (DCCS).
DCCS emphasizes a collaborative approach to language intervention. With the input of educators and administrators, they designed a professional development program to assist the interaction and collaboration of ESL and classroom teachers. The demand is clear, and the aim is simple: to improve the classroom experience for high-need ESL students while supporting teachers professionally.
Inspired by her early career work as a school psychologist, Babinski witnessed the transformation of that role as it became more integrated into the classroom. “I saw school psychology evolve from a pull-out service to children to one that was more inclusive in the regular classroom,” she said. “We realized that ESL teachers were still using a pull-out model and were kind of an untapped resource.”
Collaboration in the Classroom and at Duke
The DCCS team has worked in four different school systems so far, including Orange County Schools, Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools, Chatham County Schools and the Wake County Public School System. Durham Public Schools has expressed interest in partnering as well.
And teachers as well as administrators have backed the program. “That’s really part of what makes it work, there’s administrator support and endorsement for the teachers to be able to interact in a professional way and we get really terrific feedback on our professional development,” Babinski said.
“The skills and the instructional approaches we’re teaching them are in line with what they already do. It’s just kind of enhancing it or putting some intentional focus on it that maybe they didn’t have before, and they seem to really enjoy having this collaborative relationship with each other.”
Collaboration is embedded in the fabric of the program. Four undergraduates—Setonji Agosa, Libby Dotson, Hope Arcuri and Jessica Del Villar—form the Bass Connections team alongside Babinski and Carmen Sanchez, Ph.D., research analyst at the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke.
Each participant brings a unique perspective to the team. Agosa, a sophomore studying public policy and education, has hopes of one day working at the New York Department of Education. Dotson, also a sophomore, is majoring in both international comparative studies and cultural anthropology with a minor in environmental science.
A public policy, global health and education student, Arcuri has extensive experience volunteering with the Latino community. She worked at an ESL center throughout high school and, once at Duke, continued her work with the community through an adult ESL tutoring service and ESL third grade tutoring in Durham.
Del Villar, a senior, has also worked with the Latino community in Durham. A sociology major with a minor in cultural anthropology and a certificate in Latino Studies in the Global South, her interests in educational programming are especially aligned with the mission of the Bass Connections team.
“Bringing a variety of backgrounds together has provided a well-rounded perspective in terms of conducting research and working with the community,” Del Villar said. “Each of the team members has contributed so much to the team and we’ve all really pushed each other to think outside the box and improve our project. I would highly recommend students of different backgrounds join the team and use their personal knowledge to contribute to the project’s growth.”
While the aim of the project is to improve the educational experiences of Latino English learners in the surrounding public schools, Del Villar acknowledged that the team’s work has also enriched her experience at Duke.
“Much of my undergraduate coursework has focused on the Latino or immigrant communities, which has aligned very well with this Bass Team,” she said. “It’s been very useful to take the knowledge that I’ve gained in the classroom and be able to see how it applies in the real work. I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the Latino community in Durham and the issues that affect it, which has been very eye opening.”
Making it all happen in a 15 week semester, or even over the course of the academic year, can be one of their biggest challenges, but undergraduate involvement has proven an excellent opportunity for deeper engagement with the research community at Duke.
In terms of development of skills, Babinski highlights a session with Alexandra Cooper, associate director for education at SSRI, on survey development last semester that was particularly helpful for the team’s development of questionnaires for parents. They also met with the Institutional Review Board to learn about that process. “I’m really excited about the overall Bass activities this semester which include focus groups with Latino parents and a survey of parents about their engagement in their children’s education.”
“We’re really happy to have the opportunity to pull undergraduates in to be part of the research team,” Babinski said. “I think it’s an amazing opportunity for undergraduates to get first-hand knowledge of how research is conducted […] I think at a minimum they’re developing a new appreciation for what goes into research, what some of the challenges are, what the opportunities are and what the limits are.”
When it comes to their impact outside of Duke, Babinski is proud of the work that her team is conducting in local schools. “It’s really rewarding. It’s really encouraging to see that people feel like they’re getting a lot out of it.”