UMaine ‘Project Reach’ Helping Teachers Reduce Student Language Barriers

The number of schoolchildren in Maine for whom English is a second language — some 4,800 — increased in the past year by 53.3 percent, while K-12 populations in the state declined by 8 percent in the same period, according to state education data.  

Of the 179 school districts in Maine, 103 of them have at least one English Language Learner (ELL), a federal term for what the Maine Department of Education refers to as English as a Second Language (ESL) students.

The need to better instruct Maine teachers on how to effectively work with and educate these students is urgent, says Shelly Chasse-Johndro, the University of Maine’s Project Reach director who teaches ESL classes on campus and throughout the state for working teachers and future teachers now in college.

The Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the College of Education and Human Development recently received $1.8 million from the U.S. Department of Education to continue and expand efforts to better prepare current and future teachers of children who speak no English, or limited English, or even Franco-American or Native populations for whom culture is embedded in language.  The project also will study the impact of its teacher training efforts and contribute to a growing body of scholarship on STEM and ESL education through a longitudinal study.

“It’s especially important to understand the impact of language proficiency on students’ ability to perform in science, technology, engineering and math areas,” Chasse-Johndro says. “One of Project Reach’s key goals is to understand how we can better prepare teachers to help ELL students to succeed in STEM areas so that they can fully participate in Maine’s workforce.”

Project Reach provides five core courses leading to the Maine state ESL endorsement.  The coursework covers areas essential to ESL student needs in the classroom.  It includes core courses on ESL methods in the classroom, curriculum development, testing and assessment, linguistics and multiculturalism, in addition to STEM/ESL connections.

“English language learners need explicit instruction of academic English and guidance to understand how conversational language is different from the language of school,” says Laura Lindenfeld, the grant’s principal investigator and associate professor in Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center and the Department of Communication and Journalism. “Teachers working with these children need to understand that strategic language development and culturally responsive pedagogy are central to helping ensure their students’ success.”

Research shows that ESLs with stronger language skills are more likely to complete high school and enter college, and success in STEM courses depends in part on language proficiency, she says. Conversely, when teachers are not trained to work with ESL children, the students sometimes are assigned to special education classes, which is a detriment to them and a strain on staff.

Since 1999, the University of Maine has received Department of Education funding to support ELL teacher training through Project Opportunity, the predecessor of Project Reach, which is designed to serve teachers already in the field. The project is an innovative collaboration between the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, the College of Education and Human Development, the Maine EPSCoR office and the Sustainability Solutions Initiative.

Project Reach also is partnered with the Maine Department of Education and 15 school districts. The comprehensive, statewide teacher-training project ensures that Maine’s teachers can assist ESL students in meeting state and local standards, especially in STEM areas, and to accelerate their acquisition of language, literacy and content, Lindenfeld and Chasse-Johndro say. The project supports pre- and in-service teachers to complete their teaching certification with an ESL endorsement.

As many as 285 practicing teachers will undertake the training over the new five-year grant cycle. Of those, 250 will receive some sort of education through workshops in their districts or though UMaine courses. As many as 60 selected participants can qualify for scholarships and tuition waivers to participate in project activities and complete required coursework, Chasse-Johndro says.

“We think most of the ESL students are in urban populations, such as Lewiston and Portland, but rural schools are required to have someone who is trained in ESL even if they have just one student,” Chasse-Johndro says. “It’s important that all teachers are trained to work with ESL kids, even though they don’t have ESL kids in their classes, yet,” she says.

Contact: Shelly Chasse-Johndro, (207) 581-3847 or Laura Lindenfeld, (207) 581-3850