SEBRING — As the Highlands County School District’s student population has become more diverse in recent years, elementary schools have been hiring more teachers who are certified to teach students whose first language is not English.
The teacher certification is called ESOL, which stands for English for Speakers of Other Languages while the students are called ELL, English Language Learners.
A week ago the School Board of Highlands County’s job vacancy listing showed that two-thirds of the elementary teaching openings specified “ESOL preferred.”
Four elementary schools had a total of 14 openings for ESOL-preferred teachers. Those schools were Cracker Trail, Memorial, Sun ‘N Lake and Woodlawn elementary Schools.
There were a total of seven elementary teaching openings that did not specify ESOL preferred. Cracker Trail Elementary Principal Jeannie Inagawa explained Thursday that most openings are listed as “ESOL preferred” because if an English Language Arts teacher is not ESOL endorsed and has an ELL student in their class, the teacher is considered to be teaching a subject that is “out-of-field.”
Through the endorsement, teachers are taught strategies to assist students whose first language is not English, she said.
Inagawa note that 27 out of 32 teachers at Cracker Trail Elementary are fully ESOL endorsed, while four teachers have some ESOL training and one teacher, who teaches math and science, has no ESOL training.
Memorial Elementary Principal Laura Waldon said having more ESOL endorsed teachers provides additional latitude in the placement of students so there is not an over abundance of ELL students in one class.
“Even when I was at Fred Wild Elementary, I really worked to hire ESOL teachers,” she said. If a new-hire did not have their ESOL endorsement they were encouraged to work toward earning it.
About 56 percent of Memorial Elementary’s instructional staff is ESOL endorsed, Waldon noted.
“I have a lot of fairly new teachers to the profession and a lot who are still working toward it as well,” she said.
In the past few years the state has allowed teachers to earn an ESOL endorsement by taking two courses (total of 120 hours) and then passing an exam, Waldon said. “The exam tends to be a little challenging.”
The traditional option for ESOL endorsement calls for five 60-hour courses for a total of 300 hours of training.
The two-course plus exam option was not available years ago when she was in Broward County, Waldon noted, so she took all of the classes to earn her ESOL endorsement.
The ESOL endorsement courses offer good information, she said. “Just good, solid teaching strategies and some background knowledge for doing the most effective job that you can with the students whose first language is not English.”
A teacher does not have to be fluent in Spanish or the language of the students they are teaching to earn the ESOL endorsement.
The majority of the ELL students at Memorial Elementary are Hispanic, but the school has been enrolling more students who speak Haitian/Creole and other languages, Waldon said.
Many schools have paraprofessionals (teachers aides) who work in small groups with ELL students, she said.
Sun ‘N Lake Elementary Principal Linda Laye said she is currently advertising for six teachers and she is seeking ESOL-endorsed educators because her school serves many ELL students.
Currently 37 of her 40 teachers have the ESOL endorsement.
District Human Resources Director Vivianne Waldron explained that years ago students whose first language was not English were taught in “pullout” or self-contained classes. Only the teachers who taught ELL students were required to have the ESOL endorsement.
As those teachers became harder to find, school districts, including the Highlands County School District, began to require all of their language arts/reading teachers and elementary teachers to start studying for their ESOL endorsement during their second year on the job, she said.
The state requires those teachers to earn the ESOL endorsement within six years, Waldron noted.
Also, most education colleges now include the ESOL endorsement in their degree requirements for elementary education students.
So, nearly everyone the district hires, who has just graduated with an bachelor’s degree in elementary education, will have an ESOL endorsement, she said.
“That has helped us alleviate a lot of the critical shortage issues with ESOL,” Waldron said.