Students ride the bus home from Russellville Middle School in Russellville, Alabama, on Dec. 9, 2022.
English-Language Learners Project

After Early Success With English Learners, Can a District Keep Its Momentum?

By Ileana Najarro — January 30, 2023 11 min read
English-Language Learners Project

After Early Success With English Learners, Can a District Keep Its Momentum?

By Ileana Najarro — January 30, 2023 11 min read
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Russellville, Ala. -

Elizabeth Alonzo swerved around desks that reached just above her knees. She set up laptops for Katherine Wilson’s 2nd graders, so they’ll be ready for an online reading test.

The students were finishing up P.E. in the gym. All except 9-year-old Jose Perez Juarez, who was meeting with a counselor who works with students new to the country.

Alonzo is an aide at West Elementary in Russellville, one of 10 bilingual instructional assistants the district hired using federal pandemic relief funds—part of the school district’s latest efforts to create a more inclusive, affirming school climate for English learners.

See Also

The Russellville City School District has worked to meet the needs of an influx of Hispanic students over the last few years through a number of methods, including hiring nearly a dozen new bilingual aides. Elizabeth Alonzo, pictured here before a class at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala., on Dec. 9, 2022, is one of the bilingual aides.
To meet the needs of a growing English learner population, Russellville City Schools has hired 10 new bilingual aides, including Elizabeth Alonzo, pictured here before a class at West Elementary on Dec. 9, 2022.
Tamika Moore for Education Week

She spends each school week rotating between classrooms assisting general classroom teachers like Wilson who have a high number of English learners. She handles a variety of tasks, from translating directions for students to reaching out to their parents in Spanish.

That includes Jose, who arrived from Guatemala last year with no formal school experience. This is his second year enrolled in the 2nd grade.

Finished with the test set-up, Alonzo left Wilson’s classroom to pick up Jose from across the building.

A chorus of “hi” mixed with “hola” greeted Alonzo in the hallways as students moved between class periods. As soon as Jose made eye contact with Alonzo, he froze up. Test time loomed.

No te preocupes,” Alonzo told him as he walked beside her. “Todo va estar bien.”

He offered her a hand tucked inside his sleeve jacket to hold.

Don’t worry. Everything is going to be fine.

Funding was key to early gains

Alonzo’s time working with students like Jose may soon run out.

Elizabeth Alonzo works as a bilingual aide with 2nd grade student Esteycy Lopez Perez at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala., on Dec. 9, 2022.

By May 2024, the federal recovery funding covering Alonzo’s salary will dry up, and Russellville—like many other districts—will need to find other sources to sustain its progress. All the while, districts have to navigate a policy landscape that state leaders and researchers agree hasn’t yet caught up with what English learners need.

While districts receive annual federal funding to improve or enhance language support programs for English learners, known as Title III, the grant doesn’t cover all associated costs. Nor is the federal funding meant to fund core district activities—it’s more often meant for things like teacher training, and summer school programs.

“Federal law says that when an EL student comes to our district, it is our responsibility to educate that student,” said Heath Grimes, superintendent of the Russellville district. “It comes with no money to do that. The state is giving us relatively little money to do that, though they have increased funding over the last few years. It is falling on the district’s money.

“What if we were a poor district that could not do that?” he added. “What if you’re a rural county school that does not have a city tax base and does not have any industry? Then how do you support those students if you have a high English learner population?”

Plus, English learners are among the fastest growing student populations.

Within the last 10 years, Alabama’s English learner population doubled from about 2.4 percent to about 5 percent—a reflection of a growing national trend. Between 2010 and 2019, the national English learner population has grown to become 10 percent of all public school students, according to federal data.

These students require specialized services including translation work and, in some cases, assistance with navigating immigration laws.

Complicating matters, when English learners enroll as older students—often recently after emigrating into the country—their needs can be profound and must be met in a shorter timeframe.

Russellville has made progress with younger children, putting more elementary-age students on track to learn English. About 84 percent of 2nd graders met their language proficiency goals last school year, up from 46 percent. That’s in large part due to the hiring of aides such as Alonzo, said Grimes.

The beliefs of Russellville City Schools are displayed in English and Spanish at the front of their schools in Russellville, Ala.

But the district’s financial investments in these younger grades have left gaps in staffing and other resources for the middle and high school.

A challenge for secondary schools

An English-as-a-second-language classroom at West Elementary typically has eight students per class period working with a dedicated instructor. But at Russellville Middle, some ESL sessions have closer to 20 students at a time from different grades but similar language levels.

The district’s elementary schools have greater staffing when it comes to both ESL and English learner aides, in theory, to ensure these students test out of their English learner status early on so teachers in older grades have one less thing on their plates.

But in reality, there are still several English learners in middle school, and there isn’t enough funding to go around for them.

That’s not the only challenge at the middle school level.

The language-proficiency test used in Alabama changed in the 2016-17 school year to become more rigorous. The shift intended to match how general academic standards were rising at the time, but it had downstream effects.

In the first year of the new test, only two elementary students tested out of the English learner classification, Grimes said. That was after years in which a majority of elementary students tested out. Suddenly, the incoming middle school class had far more English learners than expected.

While the middle school has since adjusted to that shift, including hiring a part-time ESL teacher, they are still in need of more staff, Grimes acknowledged.

Then there’s the high school, where the challenges of limited funding and policy attention are most acute and where students who are English learners have the least time to catch up.

English learners at Russellville High are more often older newcomers who may not have had a comparable education in their home country. These older students must adjust to a new home and language just in time to graduate—and all while they are at an age when they are learning about themselves and what future they want.

The school takes what’s called a “sheltered instruction” approach where students learn core subjects from an ESL teacher, in addition to attending regular classes with non-English learner peers.

Russellville High School ESL teacher Edmund Martinez works with students on Dec. 9, 2022.

On a December day, one of those ESL teachers, Edmund Martinez, a former English learner himself, directed his sophomores’ attention to the projected screen on the whiteboard. His lessons are overseen by a certified math teacher, and they work together to create a curriculum for him to present.

He asked the class to tell him whether the linear equation displayed would be classified as positive or negative.

Students responded in accented English, with some providing their reasoning. In the moments that Martinez took to wipe the board for a new set of questions, hushed commentary reverberated in Spanish.

Areli Schermerhorn, who evaluates ESL instructors and is based in New York, said the high school model in Russellville requires structured collaboration between qualified ESL teachers and other subject experts, which can be challenging. Often tight teacher schedules don’t allow for this sort of collaboration.

Ideally, she said, districts using sheltered instruction ensure that older newcomers also have access to intensive after-school tutoring on language development and/or grade level content. They need that, she said, to help them catch up and acclimate to a new country.

Nationally, most states have yet to settle on best practices for these older newcomer students, Schermerhorn and other experts said, and Alabama is no exception.

State policies lag behind needs

Eric Mackey remembers what it was like when he became Alabama state superintendent of schools in 2018. The state department of education had, at best, a part-time employee overseeing its English-learner programs, which were narrowly focused on managing federal Title III funding.

In 2019, Mackey moved to add staff reviewing English learner programs while also creating regional director positions so districts could have more direct avenues to voice concerns and obtain resources.

He also oversaw an increase in state funds for English learners, distributed on a weighted formula, so that districts with more of these students get a bigger percentage of the money per child. That shift happened in 2021.

Alabama educators laud these efforts, but the state can still do more to improve policies that impact these students, they say.

The state’s English-learner population is relatively small but distributed across multiple districts. So the state should begin to require all educators to take courses that specifically prepare them to work with those students, said Andrea Word-Allbritton, the vice president of Alabama-Mississippi Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, a regional professional organization that supports professional development and other resources for educators working with multilingual students.

Last year, the University of Alabama at Huntsville and the University of Alabama at Birmingham received, in sum, close to $5.8 million in federal professional-development grants for supporting English learners.

Students in Dalia Gerardo’s 2nd grade class have access to school supplies labeled in Spanish and English at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala.

But states are also under pressure to fill jobs quickly, reducing the time it takes to get a teaching license, which constrains what can be covered during pre-service training, Word-Allbritton said.

In Russellville, at least, new general classroom teachers must learn what the language proficiency test entails at various grade and language levels. Some said that wasn’t the case at their old jobs.

And the district has been growing its pipeline of bilingual classroom teachers. Thanks to a partnership between the district and the regionally accredited, nonprofit Reach University the bilingual aides have the option to take online courses to obtain a bachelor’s degree to become a full-time teacher. That perk appealed to Alonzo when she first started working in the district, and district leaders are banking on it for the future of their teacher workforce.

Still, from innovative teaching partnerships to instructional techniques that could benefit all learners, policy for English learners is often discussed in silos, Word-Allbritton noted.

A shifting policy landscape

A primary example: In Alabama, English learners also are set apart in terms of school accountability.

Under a law passed last year, English learners’ state standardized test academic achievement scores don’t count when grading districts during those students’ first five years of enrollment. (The scores do get reported at the national level, as is required by federal policy, and the state does review English learners’ growth in academic achievement.)

Grimes was among those who urged the state to pass the law, arguing that it helps boost teacher morale. The scores alone, he said, don’t serve as an adequate accountability measure, because the tests are administered in English to students in the process of learning the language.

Not all observers agree. Leslie Villegas, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning think tank New America, argues that the state missed an opportunity to create a weighted accountability measure that more fairly tracked English learners’ linguistic and academic progress—by factoring in scores of former English learners for a more holistic view of English learners’ academic achievement. The approach taken by Alabama’s legislators, she argues, sends an implicit message that the group’s progress doesn’t matter as much as others, which she fears can lead to negative repercussions down the line.

For years, Alabama leaders thought of English-learner families as simply passing through onto other states, Mackey acknowledged.

State policy sent clear signals that such arrivals weren’t welcome. In 2011, Alabama drew national attention for passing what was then considered one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in the country. (Parts of it were later blocked by federal courts.)

But the state is now educating second-, even third-generations of families with entire regions, including Russellville, growing dependent on their contributions to local and state economies, he said.

“We struggled with getting state support resources for ESL students, for decades, really,” Mackey said. “And since 2018, we have seen the legislature really come around and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to put our money where our mouth is, we’re going to invest in these kids.’”

Mackey is hopeful the more recent shift in perspective will help convince lawmakers to boost funding for these students via the weighted formula.

“The fact is, the state will never be able to close the gap after [pandemic relief funds] go away for every dollar. But I think that we will be able to save the programs that show a lot of promise or have proven some good results.”

But nothing is yet a guarantee.

Time enough—for now

ESL teacher Edmund Martinez keeps a graduation cap and gown in his classroom to inspire students to graduate in Russellville, Ala., on December 9, 2022.

Back in Wilson’s classroom at West Elementary, minutes before the start of the online reading test, Jose fidgets in his seat, his knees slamming together. Alonzo, his aide, crouches beside him.

She translates Wilson’s instructions into Spanish, showing him where to click on his laptop screen.

“At first they’re a little shy whenever we start the school year,” Alonzo said. “They don’t want to talk to me sometimes, but over time, they start opening themselves more, and they start speaking to me in Spanish.”

If the district can’t find a way to continue funding its bilingual aide program, Alonzo will probably be out of a job. And while Alonzo knows she can figure something out for herself, she worries about what that would mean for her students.

She wants to be in the classroom because she can see how many students come to rely on her guidance as they adjust not just to a new school, but a new country. Their families too depend on a translator who can help make sense of things like field trip permission slips.

Once the test starts, Alonzo patrols the room alongside Wilson, helping students with tech issues or questions.

Jose breezes through the test, answering some questions, skipping most.

Alonzo isn’t shocked that he’s the first to shut down his computer and rest his head on his desk. Jose is still working on how to understand written English. He was like this during the school year’s first such reading test.

But Alonzo isn’t worried.

She believes in Jose, and his language skills will develop.

He’s young, she said. He still has time.

Dive Into the Project

PART 1 | A Burgeoning Success Story: In one small Alabama city, prioritizing English learners is the new normal. Learn how the district's efforts have paid off.


PART 2 | Gains Under Threat: With funding unstable and major challenges facing secondary students, Russellville’s English learner journey remains tenuous.


Why Support for English Learners Matters: A bilingual aide now provides the support she didn't get as a former English learner. Read her story.


In a Teacher's Own Words: Teachers need the right mindset to help English learners—but district leaders set the stage.


The Growth of English Learners, in Charts: Explore the data on the growth of Hispanic students and English learners nationwide over time.


Witnessing Change in a 'Little Town for Latinos': Born in Russellville, Ala., to immigrant parents from El Salvador, an English learner reflects on his journey in this video.

Lead photo: Students ride the bus home from Russellville Middle School in Russellville, Ala., on Dec. 9, 2022. —Tamika Moore for Education Week

Coverage of strategies for advancing the opportunities for students most in need, including those from low-income families and communities, is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonk12.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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