By Jacqueline Rabe Thomas
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared at CTMirror.org, an independent, non-profit, non-partisan news organization, covering government, politics and public policy in the state. In order to provide our readers with the full scope of this in-depth report on how the state handles non-English speaking students in the public school system, it was published in two parts. “Part 1” was previously featured in our April 8 issue.
Connecticut school districts don’t have enough qualified teachers for students who understand limited English.
Colleges in Connecticut only graduate about 42 people each year to help fill nearly 800 vacant positions, according to the state Office of Higher Education. Couple that with what the Connecticut State Department of Education reports is “significant personnel turnover” and the fact that nearly half of existing bilingual teachers are approaching retirement age, and districts are left scrambling to fill vacancies.
“Our problem is people were choosing bilingual classes, and we didn’t have the room,” said Mike Meyer, who oversees English learner programs for Stamford Public Schools. Because of this dilemma and a settlement the district reached with the U.S. Department of Justice, Stamford overhauled its programs for English learners, who make up 12 percent of its students.
Instead of having bilingual courses for students from a variety of grades in one classroom at every school, the district sends all these students to specific schools, so they are in class only with students in the same grade.
But the district still isn’t able to find all the staff it needs to teach these students. Stamford currently has 24 teaching vacancies for English learners.
Officials at the state education department are well aware of the shortfall.
“We know that many of our districts want very much to be able to offer bilingual education,” said Dianna R. Wentzell, who served as the education department’s chief academic officer before becoming the interim education commissioner.
“The best program is the one you can do and deliver with fidelity. Doing a program that you cannot staff is not going to work.”
When districts are unable to find a qualified teacher for these students, school officials are left hiring someone working to gain the appropriate credentials, a substitute or reshuffling their programs.
Connecticut does not require that general classroom teachers receive training on best practices for educating English learners, though some teachers do get such training.
Finding teachers is a problem districts across the nation face. English language learners “are disproportionately taught by less-qualified teachers and many mainstream educators lack training in ELL teaching methods,” reports the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan think tank that tracks education policy.
The speakers’ panel worries this shortfall is negatively impacting students.
Among the state’s English learners, 37 percent made progress from their prior assessment and 43 percent attained proficiency during the 2012-13 school year, the education department reported. The state has also struggled to close the long-standing gaps in achievement between English learners and their peers.