Lack of teachers hampers education of non-English speakers

It wouldn’t seem a daunting task: Mary-Beth Russo is looking for five teachers for schools in Hartford.

But these aren’t just any teachers. She’s looking for teachers trained to work with students whose ability to speak English is limited. And while the numbers of such students are soaring in Hartford and around the state, the number of qualified teachers has declined.

“We want to give them all the services they deserve to get caught up,” said Russo, the lead facilitator for English language learners in Hartford high schools. “If we’re lucky we will be able to fill these positions quickly. But I am anticipating that it will be a challenge. It has been difficult in previous years.”

Statewide, the number of students in the state that speak limited or no English has exploded over the past decade, but the number of teachers trained to help them has actually declined.


Elvis Minga, an ESL teacher at Law and Government Academy, helps Jean Paul, an immigrant from Haiti, with his Algebra work. In the background, math teacher Andrew Meunier helps another student who speaks limited English.

Eight year ago, one of every 27 students in the state was classified as speaking very limited English; today the ratio is one in 18, a net gain of almost 9,000 students.

Meanwhile, the number of qualified teachers has dropped by more than 9 percent, from 850 to 772.

“We have more students than we have staff to help them,” said Mark McQuillan, the state’s education commissioner. “We have a problem to solve. … This is one of the most needy groups and we are not making much headway.”

The four-year high school graduation rate for students with limited English proficiency was 53.4 percent last year compared to 79.3 percent for all students, according to the State Department of Education.

Their test scores are also across-the-board way below their English-speaking peers. For example, just 18 percent of 10th grade students at Bridgeport Public Schools tested as proficient in math compared to 38 percent of all students being proficient statewide.

“They really need modified lessons so they are able to understand some of what’s going on in class,” said Elvis Minga, an English as a second language teacher at Hartford Public High School Law and Government Academy who creates specialized lesson plans for her 30 students.

Myunt Wa, a junior at Law and Government and refugee from Myanmar, is a product of the success that specialized teachers help students achieve. Wa spoke no English when she enrolled in Law and Government two years ago. Earlier this year, Wa’s classmates were listening to her read an essay she wrote about Christopher Columbus, thanks to the ESL teachers that have worked closely with her.

“These teachers are a lifeline for these students,” said Adam D. Johnson, the principal of Law and Government, where one out of every four students speak limited English. “We have a huge, huge need for these type of teachers… It would be great if we could have four or five more.”

Johnson’s school has three teachers certified to teach the 93 students that speak eight different languages.

McQuillan believes the key to getting students on track with their peers is to hire more trained teachers like Minga. To help local districts do that, he has requested the state double the amount the state gives local districts to help pay for these teachers — from $2 million to $4 million. But lawmakers have already rejected his request for increased funding twice, and he’s not confident things will be any different this coming budget cycle as the state faces huge deficits.

“We need to prioritize this,” he said.

Finding qualified teachers?

Having enough money to hire more bilingual or English as a second language teachers is only helpful if there are actually qualified teachers available.

The Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank for immigrant integration, reports that the number of limited-English students nationwide has grown by 57 percent from 1996 to 2006. The problem, their November 2009 report says, is there are not enough trained teachers in the U.S. to work with these students. Thirty states started the last school year with ESL teaching vacancies.

That was the case in Connecticut this school year. In a recent report, the Connecticut Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said hiring more qualified teachers for limited-English students is a key to closing the state education achievement gap.

“This never goes anywhere because it is costly,” said committee member Werner Oyanadel, executive director of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission. “We know this is a group that needs help, let’s fix it.”

myunt wa

Myunt Wa, a refugee from Myanmar, writes in her native language as her history teacher Bobby Abate watches.

One problem is that the four state universities that offer programs to certify teachers for limited-English students are not producing enough graduates.

“There’s not a lot produced here. It’s a tough area,” said Nancy Pugliese, head of certification at the state DOE.

In 2008-09, the most recent year with available data, the state’s universities graduated 33 teachers certified to teach limited-English students, Pugliese said.

There are two types of certificates available in Connecticut to teach non-English speaking students; bilingual and Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). The main difference between the two is that bilingual teachers actually speak the language of the students they are teaching. TESOL teachers do not speak the language of their students, so they use pictures, body language and other resources to help their students.

The number of TESOL certified teachers has steadily increased over the past few years while the number of bilingual certified teachers has dropped by 34 percent since 2005.

Maria Davoodi, director of the Alternate Route Certification program at Connecticut Department of Higher Education, blames the major decline in bilingual certified teachers to a state law that went into effect in 2005 that effectively ended bilingual certification through her program. That law required future teachers to not only be certified in helping students learn in English but also to get certified in a subject area for secondary educators. Elementary teachers also need two certifications.

“You’re telling them to complete two programs,” she said, noting that 98 percent of the bilingual certified teachers use to come from the ARC program before they decided to stop offering bilingual certificates because of the new law. “The effect of this [law] was an afterthought.”

Ana Davila, an ESL teacher at Pulaski Middle School in New Britain, said she “would have had to think twice” about getting the certification if it was going to cost twice as much to go to school, take twice as long but get paid the same amount. “But I think I would have still done it because I want to help these students.”

She was in the last class at ARC to receive a bilingual certificate before the law was implemented.

There are also not enough incentives for prospective teachers to choose teaching students with limited English ability, McQuillan said.

Loan forgiveness – typically a couple thousand dollars for these teachers, state DOE spokesman Tom Murphy said – is really the only incentive for a teacher to go into this field.

“This has been helpful, but in no way has it turned the tide,” Murphy said, adding that the low-interest home loan program is no longer helpful since the harsh economy has brought interest rates down for everyone.

The state did attempt to secure funding in their initial federal Race to the Top application to create a bilingual institute at Eastern Connecticut State University. That institute would have provided seminars and resources for all interested teachers in the state, but their application was rejected.

While the state remains at a standstill in helping getting more qualified teachers for this population, Oyanadel is growing frustrated.

“The state does not have a plan,” he said. “The group that is most vulnerable in Connecticut is this population. For the state not to have a plan is alarming.”

Luckily for Myunt Wa, Law and Government Academy does have a plan — and teachers to carry it out — for her.

“I am glad he is in my classes,” she said about her ESL teacher this year, Thomas Baldino.