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Gainesville wants 90% of its teachers trained to teach ESOL. This is how they plan to do that
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Fair Street Elementary fourth grade teacher Grace Barber discusses a book with students Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, as she works on her ESOL certification. Gainesville City Schools is partnering with Brenau University and the University of North Georgia to train 220 staff members to teach ESOL. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Gainesville City school district has partnered with Brenau University and the University of North Georgia to train its faculty to teach English to Speakers of Other Languages, with plans to train almost all of its teachers in the next three years. 

Nearly one-third of the district’s 8,000 students are English learners — the highest in the entire state — and the unofficial number is even higher, about 50%, when factoring in those students who become proficient enough to shed the English to Speakers of Other Languages label but whose performance is still monitored for a couple of years afterward. Roughly 60% of the district’s students are Hispanic, and most ESOL students test out of the program by the time they reach fourth grade. 

The district hopes to transcend the ESOL designation and move students beyond language learning so they can more fully realize their potential. 

“The goal is to get away from the labels,” Superintendent Jeremy Williams said, which can have the effect of isolating students who take a separate ESOL class instead of English or get help from an additional teacher in their regular classes. “Sometimes we forget that just because the kid doesn't know English does not mean that they shouldn't be in that AP classroom, that gifted classroom or that dual-enrollment classroom.” 

Having a “language deficit,” he added, “doesn't have any connection necessarily to the cognitive level of the kid.” 

The district has roughly 800 faculty and 34% of them are currently qualified to teach ESOL. The goal is to have 90% of them endorsed in the next three years, Williams said, with as many as two-thirds by the spring of next year. Endorsement, in this case, refers to additional training in a particular subject area for teachers who are already certified. 

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Fair Street Elementary fourth grade students discuss a book Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, during an ESOL class. - photo by Scott Rogers

Teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade will partner with Brenau and sixth through 12th grade teachers will be with UNG. About 220 teachers have signaled their willingness, with a roughly equal number in each cohort. They will take three online courses: applied linguistics, cultural learning for bilingual ESOL, and methods and materials. Williams started his classes this week. 

Shea Ray, director of federal programs for the district, said many teachers are excited about the opportunity to become endorsed and better serve their students.

“Teachers are always looking for strategies to help their students,” Ray said. “That's what they see with the ESOL endorsement, an opportunity for them to learn new strategies to help their English learners. … All of our teachers, whether they're a PE teacher or a math teacher, they have English learners in their classroom.” 

Teachers will not be learning alongside other university students who may take ESOL courses as part of their electives. Instead, they are grouped with their colleagues, and the courses have been tailored in part to their particular needs. 

“In these other districts, their numbers are not as high,” Williams said. “So their experiences with their English-learning students is not the same experience that we have with our students and families. And so the value is really creating a cohort of our employees who serve our kids in an environment where they can learn from each other while trying out some of these strategies.” 

The initiative will be paid for by CARES funding and will cost roughly $600,000. Each teacher will be paid $1,000 after completing their courses, and the universities will be paid the same amount per teacher. 

“We’ve been looking at data over the last few years and just realized how important it was,” Ray said. “And whenever the CARES funds became available, it just seemed like the right opportunity. We're very grateful.” 

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Fair Street Elementary fourth-grade teacher Grace Barber talks with a student about a book the class is reading Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, as she works on her ESOL certification. Gainesville City Schools is partnering with Brenau University and the University of North Georgia to train 220 staff members to teach ESOL. - photo by Scott Rogers
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Fair Street Elementary fourth-grade students discusses a book with Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, during an ESOL class. Gainesville City Schools is partnering with Brenau University and the University of North Georgia to train 220 staff members to teach ESOL. - photo by Scott Rogers