In the state of Missouri, approximately 4.5% of students in schools are classified as English learners. Although this is half of the national average, it’s a growing population. It presents unique challenges for teachers and others in the education system.
Dr. Andrea Hellman, assistant professor of English at Missouri State University, tells us about the current population of English learners in the region – a mix of both immigrants and resettled refugees.
“We are getting people who are relocating from refugee camps in Kenya and Thailand,” she said.
Other refugees are relocating from Thai refugee camps, she said.
“That is the most diverse region of the globe. In those refugee camps, approximately 100 languages are spoken.”
She’s been working in this field for about 10 years. She explains how she’s seen the composition change over time.
“People come in, they integrate, they resettle, they learn English, and then we see another wave of people who need our help,” Hellman said.
How to get English learners integrated in community
For a community or a school district, the greatest challenge is learning about the new population, she says.
“What brings them here? What are their strengths? Where do they need our support?” she asks. “When we are dealing with individuals who are resettling from refugee camps, they need the very basics – the supportive, nonthreatening environment. They need to feel that they can come into our school and feel safe and be ready to learn.”
They also need assistance with the necessities, she added.
“A lot of the resettled refugees have jobs. The reason they are coming here is employment opportunities, mainly around the Walmart meat industries,” she said. “We need to welcome them. To make them feel safe, make them feel comfortable. Make sure that we connect them to those resources in the community that are there to serve them. A lot of them find lots of support in the local churches.”
Preparing in-service teachers for diverse classrooms
Teaching English as a second language, or TESOL, is one of Hellman’s passions. Four years ago, Hellman was awarded a federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education for improving English language teaching in the Ozarks. The goal: To create a program that will support in service teachers who are interested in becoming specialists for English learners in the Springfield, Monett, Neosho and McDonald County school districts.
Now these teachers are working toward an ELL endorsement, a 30 credit credential, and even participate in a master’s of science in interdisciplinary studies in English language teaching and literacy education.
“The teachers benefit from participating in our program,” she said. “We also benefit in that we are able to create a cadre of teachers who are driven by the heart, who are in it for these students that they really believe in, and who have the heart and the willingness to engage the families of these newcomers in various projects in the school so that they can contribute to the school community and hopefully integrate.”