The state of Illinois is home to the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking population in the United States, with thousands of children from bilingual homes heading to Illinois schools. As the university that provides one out of every eight teachers in the state, Illinois State’s College of Education is making strides to equip current and future elementary school teachers with the skill set to teach English learners and bilingual children in the classroom.

With the help of grants from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of English Language Acquisition, and the Office of Innovation and Improvement, the University’s School of Teaching and Learning leads several programs to enable current teachers and teacher assistants to earn endorsements to teach English learners.

“There are more English learners in our schools today in urban, suburban, and even rural areas throughout the state,” said Associate Professor Pauline Williams, one of the co-directors of the grant-funded programs. “We’re helping to address the needs of teachers in classrooms.”

The latest round of programs provided nearly 200 teachers and assistants (also known as paraprofessionals) with endorsements to teach English as a second language (ESL). The grants cover endorsement training in five areas: Elgin, Zion, Waukegan, Round Lake, and North Chicago.

Williams works closely with the Unit 46 School District in Elgin, which the Latino Policy Forum lists as one of the fastest growing populations of English learners in the state. “Illinois State’s partnership with U46 is one of the oldest we have in the Chicago area,” said Williams, who noted over the last five years alone, 118 teachers and paraprofessionals have gained endorsements to teach ESL and/or bilingual education. “These are people who work full time. So we needed to find a way to work with them so they could earn the credits they need.”

Illinois State collaborates closely with community colleges in the areas to provide access to courses. “They have to be at school, working full time with long hours of prep, and then taking classes for the endorsements,” said Maria Luisa Zamudio, director of the programs geared to help paraprofessionals transition to teachers . “We make all the arrangements so they can take classes on nights and weekends to graduate.”

Part of the program since the early 2000s, when the former Director of Illinois State’s Bilingual/Bicultural Education Program George Torres first developed the access for teachers and paraprofessionals to earn bilingual endorsements, Zamudio noted working with bilingual and English learning students is about more than language. “When we talk of language, we bring the concept of culture as well. You cannot separate language from culture.”

According to Williams, “In the past, the way educators approached bilingual learners was contrary to what the research teaches us. Teachers used to view English learners through a deficit model due to their limited English proficiency” she said, pointing out that school districts once discouraged students from using their first language in the classroom. “Now we know that emergent bilingual students’ language skills are resources that can help them achieve academically and learn English. Including their cultures in the learning process enables these students to make connections to prior knowledge and provides them an authentic context for learning. And when we bring language and culture to the classroom, it enhances the learning experience for all.”

That comprehensive approach to education is one of the core tenets of the School of Teaching and Learning, noted Department Chair Linda Haling, who added that graduates of the school are influencing bilingual education in Illinois. “Districts across the state are recognizing the need for teachers who are trained to work with second and third language learners, and our faculty have been preparing students for that need for years,” she said. “We have just about 1,500 majors in early childhood and elementary and middle level, and about 80 to 85 percent of them select that ESL endorsement as their elected track. So with our undergraduates working toward bilingual education, and the adult learners earning endorsements, Illinois State is a key leader in helping Illinois tackle a growing need.”