RUSSELL VILLE, ALA. — As part of an exercise to help the class learn English, a third grader pulled a block out of a Jenga tower and read aloud a question written on one page. “Where,” the boy read, then slowly said the other words, “Where do you want to go?”
“Disneyland,” said one student. “Space,” another classmate chimed in. “Guatemala,” said a girl with a bright blue ribbon.
Kathy Alfaro, a new English teacher at Russellville Elementary, exchanged a few words with the girl in Spanish, then turned to the other students. “Do you know what she said?” Alfaro asked the class. “She said she has a lot of families in Guatemala because she was born there. And I told her that I was born here but also have a lot of family in Guatemala.”
This north Alabama community with a large population of Hispanic immigrants is using federal COVID-19 relief funds for an experiment to help students still learning English. They hire and certify more local Spanish-speaking staff, like Alfaro. She was previously a Spanish teacher but took on a new role teaching children the English language.
More than half of the 2,500 students in the small school district of the city of Russellville identify as Hispanic or Latino, and about a quarter are still learning English — known as EL students.
But the district has sometimes struggled to find the people and money needed to help EL students make a difference. It typically takes five years of intensive small group tuition in addition to regular classes to help a student learn English and perform well in a regular classroom.
In addition to helping more local students thrive, Russellville wants to be a model for the rest of the country.
“We’ve tried to teach a growing number of EL students with mostly white teachers who speak English,” said Superintendent Heath Grimes. “And I’m like, ‘Why don’t we use resources that we have in our community?'”
As a group, English learners underperformed on language proficiency tests during the pandemic. Experts say this may be because many students don’t have good access to online classes at home, or schools struggle to transfer in-person EL help to remote settings.
Russellville appears to be bucking this trend.
Countywide, the percentage of students who met their language proficiency goals increased from 46% in 2019 to 61% in 2022. At the two elementary schools, language proficiency increased by nearly 30 percentage points.
“We’ve never seen a number like this before,” said Grimes, who credits the new EL teachers and aides for the boost.
Some of the country’s largest districts have used pandemic aid funds to hire bilingual staff, according to the Education Trust. As federal aid funds begin to run out and schools prepare for post-pandemic budget cuts, experts and advocates warn against cutting support for EL programs and other interventions.
“Our over-reliance on federal and temporary funds may show that we are already not doing enough as a state,” said Carlos Alemán, director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. “If we see those dollars going down, the state should really think about it and see what they can do to make sure those programs can stay in place.”
Russellville school officials are working on ways to maintain the new roles – and hope the state will increase long-term funding for EL education.
Government funding for English language programs is limited but growing. The state legislature approved $2.9 million for schools with large EL populations in 2018, and that amount increased to $16 million last year.
Alabama Department of Education executives are calling for more room in this year’s budget for EL specialists and regional coordinators.
“We want to make sure that students who come to this country and cannot read learn to read quickly and in English,” said Superintendent Eric Mackey. “We will continue to invest in this because we are convinced that every child deserves a quality education.”
Advocates say money for EL students often falls short, especially in rural counties that struggle to fund schools.
“It takes a lot more money to educate a kid who doesn’t speak your language,” said Rep. Jamie Kiel, a Russellville Republican who has called for more money in the state budget for EL students.
Alfaro is one of three EL staff at her school. They join about 20 other EL educators, volunteers, and translators in the district — nearly half of whom are paid with COVID-19 relief funds.
Across the street from West Elementary, Elizabeth Alonzo, who is in her second year as an EL assistant, said she never expected to play such a role — mostly because there were few bilingual teachers at her school, but also Because she didn’t think she had the qualifications.
Alonzo is finishing his undergraduate work at a teacher training program called Reach University, which is contracting with more and more districts in Alabama to help certify more local personnel.
“When I started kindergarten, I didn’t know a word of English, so I struggled a lot,” she said, noting that often an older cousin had to come into her class to translate what her teacher was saying. “That was one of the reasons I wanted to do this, because I want to help these students.”
Trisha Powell Crain contributed to this story. The Alabama Education Lab team at AL.com is supported by a partnership with Report for America.
This story is part of Tackling Teacher Shortages, a collaboration between AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee in California, The Hechinger Report, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston , South Carolina, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.
The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.