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DENTON (CBSDFW.COM) – Educators at Texas Woman’s University have received more than $4.3 million in U.S. Department of Education grants for projects aimed at meeting the state’s demand for bilingual teachers.

TWU received $2.2 million for a project to improve instruction for Spanish-speaking English language learners in North Texas dual language elementary schools. A second project, which focuses on the professional development of educators teaching English language learners in two Denton high schools, was awarded $2.1 million in funding.

Project PIONERAS (Professional Improvement through Optimization of Native-language Education and the Realization of Academic/Familial Symbiosis) will work to improve instruction for Spanish-speaking English language learners in elementary and pre-kindergarten dual-language schools within the Denton Independent School District.

Holly Hansen-Thomas, Ph.D., Professor of Teacher Education and Interim Dean of the Texas Woman’s University Graduate School, said the teacher certification requirements are different today than when many current teachers went through the process.

“In Texas, more than 90% of English language learners speak Spanish as their first language,” Hansen-Thomas said. “We believe teachers in public schools need to have all the skills and tools available to them to give their students what they need to be successful.”

In addition to providing university coursework for current teachers and offering scholarships to help them complete a graduate degree, the project also will benefit students who plan to become bilingual teachers.

A third component of the project supports parental involvement in their children’s education. A Spanish resource library will provide information to enable families to make informed decisions about their children’s education, and family engagement activities will be conducted on school campuses.

The second grant-funded project, ELLevate! (English Language Learner Educators Vested in the Advancement of Teaching Excellence), will focus on all educators, not just bilingual teachers, at Denton and Braswell high schools.

“The entire school needs to understand how the two languages are working together and how they can help the students,” Stewart said.

Research suggests the achievement gap between mainstream and English language learner students grows exponentially during the middle and high school years, leading to academic failure for many adolescent English language learners. Mandy Stewart, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Teacher Education noted that, while many elementary educators are required to be certified to teach English as a Second Language, the same rarely holds true at the secondary level. As a result, she said, many high school educators lack sufficient knowledge of language theories, methods and strategies to effectively educate their students who are learning English.

Participating educators in each high school will receive professional development training that consists of language, literacy and engagement. The language component will focus on bilingual and second language acquisition theories, while the literacy component will focus on incorporating written and oral language across all subject areas. The engagement component will focus on involving English language learners in meaningful academic activities and increasing families’ involvement with the school.

Texas Woman’s University, which is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, was one of the earliest higher education institutions in the area to train bilingual teachers.

“We have a history of being successful with grants,” Hansen-Thomas said.

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