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An asset, not a burden

Step into Andrea Donovan’s freshman English classroom at Lee High School for a minute, and listen. You’re going to hear a lot of Spanish. This is not surprising in a district where roughly half of all students are English-language learners.

“I receive all the newcomers when they come into the high school — they all take English 9, regardless of their grade or where they finished in their home country,” said Donovan.

She has a new set of skills to serve those students, thanks to a National Professional Development grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Donovan is part of a 15-teacher cohort that completed English Language Certification in May through the grant, administered by Aquinas College’s School of Education. The grant covered tuition for eight courses required for a K-12 English as a Second Language endorsement onto an already existing teaching certificate.

Andrea Donovan, an English teacher at Lee High School, leads her students, many of whom are English-language learners

“It’s one of the best things I’ve done educationally and professionally,” said Donovan. “There is such a need in our district.”

Her cohort included four other teachers from Godfrey-Lee, as well as teachers from neighboring districts who have been meeting regularly since fall of 2017 to take classes toward certification. Donovan said that in her experience and from what she’s heard from others in her cohort, the work is paying off.

“Teachers now feel more comfortable working with English-language learners,” she said. “At the end of the day, these are really good strategies.”

Strategies that help students like Vidaura Pavlo.

Vidaura came to the district two years ago from Guatemala by way of California. She took a break from Donovan’s class, where she was studying “Romeo and Juliet,” to share that it wasn’t uncommon when she first arrived in America to have people get impatient with her due to her difficulty understanding English.

But her English has improved greatly in the last few years, due in large part to the help of Donovan and her teaching partner, Brenda Caballero.

Vidaura Pavlo, originally from Guatemala, said she enjoys being able to translate for her family as her English improves

“When I’m with my parents, at the store or when we’re traveling, I translate for them,” said Vidaura, who is quickly gaining confidence with her English.

Donovan said a huge strength of the certification program is that it helps teachers see English-language learners as an asset, not a burden.

“They’re walking the path to bilingualism, and it will make them more successful,” said Donovan. “I think oftentimes maybe in populations where they don’t have a lot of experience working with ELLs, they do view that as a deficit because they might struggle in their second language, which is English. However, we have to realize that they’re bringing so many skills from their culture and of course their native language to the classroom.

The program has also equipped Donovan with a model known as Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol or SIOP — a way to make material more understandable to ELL students. Donovan has been following the model for her lesson plans.

“My intention is not to water down the lessons, but to make them more comprehensible,” said Donovan, who has already seen improvements in grades when comparing unit assessments from this year to last.

Rodolfo Castillo, who came to Lee High School from Mexico last fall, hopes his bilingualism will help him succeed

Successful Students, Community Assets

Briana Asmus is an associate professor of education and ESL/Bilingual program director at Aquinas College’s School of Education. Asmus said every local school district has been affected, although to varying degrees,  by an influx of immigrants and migrants to the area. In Kentwood, she said, 87 languages are spoken in the district.

“Teachers aren’t necessarily equipped with the skills to help those students. That’s why this work is so important,” said Asmus.

Aquinas has partnered with Godfrey-Lee, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Kentwood, Grand Rapids, and Wyoming schools as well as with the Diocese of Grand Rapids to train in-service and pre-service teachers through the five-year grant, awarded in 2015. When all is said and done, about 140 teachers will have completed the program.

Without the training, Asmus said, “We run the risk of teachers seeing the students as a burden. They actually have incredible assets, and if teachers know how to utilize them, they can benefit their district in a lot of ways. But if they don’t, (students) are going to fall behind, and struggle to catch up and unfortunately, in some circumstances, drop out. That works its way out in to the community as well.”

Asmus said that, as part of the grant, she is collecting data to better understand the impact of teachers who have the endorsement on students.

“What we’re hoping to see is that the students will be achieving higher and better under the direction of a teacher who has ESL certification,” said Asmus.

Ninth-grader Rodolfo Castillo, who came to Lee High School from Mexico with no English last August, said he has felt supported by Donovan in his path to bilingualism since arriving at Lee.

“Maybe as an adult I can find work easier than if I didn’t have two languages,” he said.

Andrea Donovan, an English teacher at Lee High School, discusses ‘Romeo and Juliet’ with her students
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Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza
Bridie Bereza hails from Lansing and has worked in the Grand Rapids area as a reporter, freelance writer, and communicator since graduating from Aquinas College in 2003. She feels privileged to cover West Michigan's public schools and hopes to shed a little light on the amazing things happening there through her reporting.


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