Faculty Receive $8.1 Million in Grants to Improve ESL Education in Arkansas

September 29, 2017

Janet Penner-Williams, left, and Diana Gonzales Worthen
Janet Penner-Williams, left, and Diana Gonzales Worthen

Two University of Arkansas faculty members recently received three federal grants totaling more than $8 million to fund programs to increase the number of educators prepared to teach English language learners in Arkansas schools.

Janet Penner-Williams and Diana Gonzales Worthen, faculty members in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education and Health Professions, have partnered with the Arkansas Department of Education and the Springdale School District on other, similar grant-funded projects in the past and will continue the partnership with them and others statewide on these new grants. Parts of the projects will be offered online to reach the entire state.

"The overall goal of these three projects is to increase the readiness of teachers and administrators in Arkansas to work effectively with English language learners," Penner-Williams said. "We can assist schools in building additional infrastructure needed to continue to serve more and more English learners. And, there are also a lot of communities in Arkansas that are just now enrolling English language learners."

There are significant disparities in the Springdale school district between the percentage of English learners and that of grade-level teachers prepared to work with them effectively. For example, one of the targeted schools in this grant has 64 percent English learners, while only 22 percent of teachers hold an ESL endorsement, according to Gonzales Worthen.

The previous grants Penner-Williams and Gonzales Worthen received concentrated on helping teachers earn ESL endorsement. The new grants continue with that goal but also add new components.

One portion of Penner-Williams' projects will provide professional development in ESL for pre-kindergarten through third-grade teachers and administrators as well as outreach efforts for parent, family and community engagement. The other grant will focus on fourth- through 12th-grade educators. The grants will pay for a limited number of both teachers and U of A students to take courses to add the ESL endorsement or complete a new 15-credit-hour graduate certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

She plans to develop and deliver online professional development modules to 175 educators, including U of A teacher-education students, teachers, administrators and instructional coaches; to create three-week summer institutes for U of A students and teachers; to develop online professional development and outreach activities for parents, family and community members that improve engagement in English language learners' education and social involvement; and to enroll 40 teachers and 20 U of A students in ESL courses to complete an ESL certification or ESL graduate certificate.

Penner-Williams' other project has similar objectives but will be offered to teachers, instructional coaches and administrators in kindergarten through 12th grades and to U of A students studying for certification in K-12.

Gonzales Worthen's project is aimed at helping 44 teachers earn ESL endorsement or a TESOL graduate certificate but also includes a component to prepare 13 bilingual and bicultural paraprofessionals to earn an associate's or bachelor's degree to become certified teachers with an ESL endorsement. This goal will be achieved through a "Grow Your Own" initiative, which compliments the Arkansas Department of Education's Vision for Excellence to increase teacher diversity.

She has built in support services such as online coaching for teachers and review sessions to help them prepare for the ESL Praxis exam and enhanced advising and mentoring for the paraprofessionals.

She and Penner-Williams previously piloted a program in Springdale that resulted in three bilingual and bicultural paraprofessionals earning their degrees and teaching certificates. They now teach, have their own classrooms and two are in the schools where they used to work as instructional assistants.

She will create an online, service-learning course on parent and community engagement, which is important for the success of children who speak English as a second language.

"There is a need for teachers to learn to be more effective with parents, not only at school, but in the community," she said. "Teachers want to learn more, to serve their students more effectively."

Penner-Williams is the principal investigator on two five-year grants, and Gonzales Worthen is the principal investigator of one five-year grant, each funded for about $2.7 million by the U.S. Department of Education. Each woman is co-principal investigator on the other grant projects, which will have a research component.

Throughout all three projects, Penner-Williams and Gonzales Worthen will collect and analyze data on enhanced teacher effectiveness and student learning. The federal funders require that they show the program's impact on teachers and the students they teach. A previous funded project showed teachers improved their effectiveness in the classroom.

"They see what they can do to improve their teaching," Gonzales Worthen said. "They reach students in different ways they didn't know before."

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