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UNT, Denton ISD team up to boost English studies

Profile image for By George Joseph / Staff Writer
By George Joseph / Staff Writer

With an increase in immigration over the last few decades, the University of North Texas and the Denton school district have partnered to offer extra help to students whose primary language is not English.

Denton’s Spanish-speaking community, for example, is growing rapidly.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s Latino population has almost doubled from 2000 to 2010, jumping from 52,619 to 90,967.

In the city of Denton, Latinos make up 21 percent of the population. In Texas, there are more than 800,000 public school students who are learning English and more than 200,000 of them are in North Texas.

Data from the Texas Education Agency shows that as of 2010, nearly 3,500 students, 14.5 percent of the Denton school district, were learning English.

Taking advantage of federal funds, in this case a $985,000 Title III National Professional Development grant from the U.S. Department of Education, UNT in September began Project Nexus, a program designed to improve math and science instruction for classrooms that include students learning English.

The project, designed to help middle school and high school teachers, included the development of language objectives, the inclusion of English Language Proficiency Standards in lesson plans, and tips on how to increase classroom interaction and understanding.

Maria Dudash, Denton’s Project Nexus coordinator, said that 20 teachers at five Denton schools — Denton High School, Ryan High School, Calhoun Middle School, McMath Middle School and Strickland Middle School — have participated in the program, which is set to expand over the next four years, training 60 instructors each year in the Denton and Lewisville school districts and at UNT.

“We plan to add 20 more every year,” Dudash said. “This program is important because, especially on the secondary level, research shows there are a lot of teachers lacking in the knowledge and skills to meet the challenge of English language learners.”

Given the significant number of students whose primary language is not English, it is important that as many teachers as possible go through some measure of training, said Rossana Boyd, director of Project Nexus at UNT.

“Ideally, all secondary-level classroom teachers should receive professional development,” she said.

Because of the limited nature of the federal grant and the state’s generally anemic funding for education, the district can only train a limited number per year.

Gina LeClare, who teaches algebra and English as a second language at Denton High, said more teachers wanted to join the program than were accepted.

Denton teachers who did get the opportunity seemed to appreciate more instruction in the linguistically expansive approach to education, LeClare said.

“At the workshops we did a lot,” LeClare said. “We modeled strategies and they even allowed us to work with instructors from our own content area. After that, we took a couple days’ break and then came back to design units and discuss what areas we needed support in.”

Project Nexus also provided instruction for local principals and the university’s teacher trainers in order to ensure a more comprehensive impact, said UNT teacher trainer Cindy Woods.

“English language learners are everywhere, in our state especially,” Woods said. “Attending that workshop gave me the strategies to work with students of differing proficiency language levels.”

The initiative also has provided scholarship funding for UNT students who are studying to be teachers to sign up for English as a second language courses.

Dudash, who also serves as the Denton school district’s high school coordinator for ESL classes, praised the program’s interdisciplinary focus and benefits for all students.

“The program uses language as a vehicle to make math and science more understandable for all our students,” she said. “It’s definitely needed because teachers have a challenge meeting the increasingly diverse nature of our classrooms. Now we’re getting some students from the Middle East and other countries, so our teachers need strategies and methodologies to better reach and accommodate these students.”

That targeted effort toward improving math and science enrichment for students learning English is crucial to preparing students for a 21st century job market in which data and technology skills are becoming more and more important, Boyd said.

She cited disparate data on the state’s standardized tests.

“There’s a large academic gap in mathematics and science between English language learners and regular education students at the middle and high school levels,” Boyd said.

She said Project Nexus gears students for careers in the science, technology, engineering and math — fields that the Denton school district has been emphasizing.

LeClare said the project is already working well in her algebra classes.

“I’ve already starting applying this in my classes, and I see that it’s working,” she said. “It’s worked for all my classes.”

GEORGE JOSEPH can be reached at 940-566-6845.