Marlena Young-Jones started her English-as-a-second-language class the way she always does: asking everyone to share something they did over the weekend or after school.
She called out each name in her thick, Southern drawl, drawing grins from her 2nd graders. Students launched into short stories, all in English, pausing occasionally to ensure proper pronunciation.
Playing Roblox on a tablet. Shopping with mom at Walmart. Getting a Happy Meal at McDonald’s. Pestering an older brother who recently arrived from Guatemala.
Young-Jones teaches at West Elementary, part of the Russellville City schools district in northern Alabama. She works specifically with students classified as English learners, most of whom are native speakers of Spanish. She helps them master both conversational and academic English with instruction that builds off general classroom lessons.
Young-Jones graduated from Russellville in 2002. In her own school days, such students were few. Support for them, minimal. But today, she’s one of three teachers along with seven bilingual aides, dedicated to working with 293 English learners at her school.
Her short-term goal is to help these students pass a standardized test classifying them as proficient in the English language. The long-term goal, though less concrete, is even more critical—to help them become productive contributors in American society. It’s a goal that speaks to the booming English learner population both here and throughout Alabama, where the percentage of these students has doubled in 10 years.
As English learners increasingly drive public school enrollment, more districts will need to create welcoming, supportive learning environments like those here—even if sufficient funding for resources including staffing isn’t always a guarantee.
While her 2nd graders reviewed vocabulary from a reading completed the week before, Young-Jones chatted with Franklin Carrillos Lopez, a student who finished early. He is originally from Guatemala.
“Your brother that just moved here, are you teaching him a little English?” she asked.
“No, because he just keeps listening to songs.”
“But he studies,” Franklin quickly added, with a pointed finger for emphasis.
“He studies? Well, that’s good.”
“Yeah. With the computer that his teacher gave him.”
A national shift in demographics
A quarter of Russellville students are English learners. The demographic shift in the student body is a reflection of a national picture.
Since at least the 1980s, the number of white students enrolling in public schools has steadily declined. English learners, most of them Hispanic, are now one of the fastest growing student populations in the country. Forty-two states and the District of Columbia saw an increase between 2010 and 2019, according to federal data. The national Hispanic population overall is projected to grow to 111 million or 28 percent of the U.S. population by 2060, according to the U.S. Census.
These students require linguistic support from office and classroom staff, proven best practices when it comes to instruction, and sometimes—if they emigrated into the country—trauma counseling. They also need tailored academic support in the wake of the pandemic; nationally English learners faced disproportionate challenges to academic progress.
How states educate these students varies. Some devote more school time to keeping all English learners in intensive language class periods. Others prioritize time in general classrooms with language support there. How well states integrate grade level content with language instruction can vary. Not all states offer adequate funding or support, advocates say, and federal funding, at less than $800 million a year, isn’t designed to implement and sustain core programs and policies.
Researchers and advocates argue that questions around how to best support English learners are often siloed off from broader policy discussions, leaving a perception that they are a niche interest group—and robbing the K-12 field of best practices that could benefit all students.
Even when policies, research, and funding align in a way that works, small wins can be tenuous. But it’s the small successes—such as staffing changes tied to federal pandemic relief funding—on which educators hinge their hopes.
And it’s not just in states with large English learner populations like California or New York where educators need to prioritize support for these students.
Look at the small Alabama city of Russellvillle.
A community renewed
A drive around downtown Russellville tells a story 20 years in the making.
Around the corner from the historic Roxy Theatre on North Jackson Avenue stands the Pollo-lo-Quillo bakery. The busiest barber shop in town is Napoles, owned by a family originally from Guatemala. Even on Highway 43, the main thoroughfare, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Kentucky Fried Chicken share the road with Las Palmas Taqueria & Mexican Grill and El Patron.
Hispanic entrepreneurs, laborers, and their families now help fuel the local economy.
About 40 percent of the nearly 11,000 residents here identify as Hispanic, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Between 2017 and 2021, close to 38 percent of the population spoke a language other than English at home and about 22 percent were foreign-born.
A billboard for the local Pilgrim’s poultry plant advertises work with pay starting at $17 an hour up to $22.30. It reads: “Help Us Feed America.”
Such jobs, paired with lower costs of living and a slower day-to-day pace, have drawn Hispanic families from states such as California and Illinois, and abroad.
The Russellville school district also has garnered a reputation as a place where Hispanic students are cared for, where they can succeed. Graduates from the district now run shops in town or have returned to work as educators.
That includes Elizabeth Alonzo, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, who graduated from Russellville High School in 2013. She never had teachers in Russellville who looked or sounded like her. Now she is an English learner aide rotating between 2nd grade classrooms at West Elementary.
A former English learner herself, she remembers how isolating it felt not being able to communicate with her teachers and peers.
Alonzo is one of 10 bilingual aides the district has hired since 2021 and distributed across the district using federal pandemic relief funding. The aides are concentrated at the district’s K-2 primary grade school; leaders reason that helping more English learners gain fluency before middle school will better prepare these students for upper grades, and will be one less thing for teachers down the line to worry about.
The aides benefit students and teachers alike. They serve as translators for English learners in general classrooms. They make sure students understand assignments, assist with parent outreach, and help with administering tests, among other duties.
These hires mark the linchpin of the district’s strategy to adapt to the growing multilingual student population.
It’s a journey that started about eight years ago, with the arrival of the current superintendent, Heath Grimes. His mission for all his educators: Stop thinking students are difficult to teach just because they aren’t fluent in English.
They can—and must—be taught with high expectations.
Targeting supports for English learners
Catarina Mendez Pedro, a 4th grader at Russellville Elementary, arrived from Guatemala last year having never attended school.
She still trips over English words such as “chair” and “hour.”
But in a session with her ESL teacher, Katherine Alfaro, she recognized the plus sign for addition (suma), the dash for subtraction (resta), the x for multiplication (multiplicación). She knows what to do with the numbers, how to show her work.
She just needed Alfaro to help translate the word problem, which asked how many chairs could be made in four hours if a certain number were made in one. Then she could explain in English what the totals meant.
Teachers like Alfaro and Young-Jones who offer targeted instruction are key investments for the district. They help students access general subjects while improving their fluency in English. But students spend most of the school day in general classroom settings. That’s where they rely on aides like Alonzo who supplement what classroom teachers do, offering personalized assistance.
But when Grimes started as superintendent in Russellville, in 2015 such investments were scarce, leaving students like Catarina with few lifelines for navigating a new school, a new language, and a new country all at once.
Grimes had worked as a special education teacher early in his career and studied policies around English learners for his dissertation. So he was hired with strict expectations that English learners’ academic performance would improve under his watch.
By then, the district already had a steadily growing English learner population. Yet there weren’t enough ESL teachers on the payroll, no bilingual aides, and a resistant administration.
Grimes recalls a former colleague explaining the demographics like this: Cry for what was lost—the prior majority white student population—mourn, and accept the new reality.
He found faculty with limited or no training on English learners frustrated at being unable to effectively teach around language barriers. Students, in turn, showed little engagement in the classroom. Teachers failed English learners almost as a default. Which meant close to a quarter of the whole student population was failing.
Something had to give.
An unexpected advocate
At first, Grimes admits, he messed up. He preached a message that amounted to “Just love them and educate them,” and with it demanded results—more students passing the language-proficiency test known as ACCESS for ELLs, used to gauge progress in 36 states.
Through trial and error, Grimes and his school principals learned that teachers needed more support staff, ideally bilingual. They needed more professional development. They needed the right instructional materials.
Grimes quickly realized that to afford these resources for his teachers, he needed the state to increase its allotment to Russellville for English learners. And that meant building a relationship with the state superintendent, and getting into the weeds of public advocacy for these students.
Raised as a southern conservative, Grimes suddenly found himself in the state capitol at odds with fellow superintendents for how often he led conversations on how to better educate English learners, especially those who are immigrants.
“I’ve never been an advocate for anything in my life,” Grimes said. “I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t know the shunning that kind of comes with being an advocate.”
He pushed on regardless, even going so far as to form a group for school leaders to share information and resources, Alabama Leaders Advocating for English Learners.
In his own district, Grimes faced educators and staff who held conservative views on immigration, and who questioned the growth in foreign students in particular.
But one look around Russellville made it clear to Grimes that these students and their families kept the city alive with their businesses and the jobs they held. They would be the ones deciding Russellville’s future.
“You have to get out of the mindset of Republican, Democrat, how you feel about immigration, whether they should be here, legally, illegally, and just have to look at them as our students,” Grimes said.
“We had to go through that. There were people that felt burdened,” he continued. “But I don’t think you find that in our district now.”
To change hearts and minds, Grimes got more training into schools and brought in more ESL staff.
Now all teachers understand what the language proficiency test entails, so they can better prepare their English learners in general classrooms.
Five years ago, in response to requests from English learners’ parents, the district’s middle school shifted class periods to ensure English learners had more class time with their monolingual English-speaking peers. The high school put on its first Hispanic Heritage month event in 2020, with participation and attendance growing ever since.
English learners as a key priority in Russellville schools is the new normal.
So far, Russellville’s intensive focus on the students has paid off in results. English learners in 3rd and 5th grades went from only about 36 percent and 31 percent respectively meeting grade-level language proficiency in the 2020-21 school year to about 71 percent last school year. Second graders’ progress grew from 46 percent to 84 percent.
Those gains haven’t yet shown up in the secondary grades, where fewer resources have been available and invested—a problem nationally as well.
What made the difference for younger students? The combined work of general classroom teachers, ESL teachers—and of course, the new aides.
A boon for students, a challenge for budgets
The 2nd graders in Dalia Gerardo’s West Elementary classroom listened as she read a story aloud from a workbook. As the children raised their hands to take their turn reading out a sentence, one student focused on where Alonzo, the aide, stood in the classroom.
Maria Gonzalez de Leon’s body loosened up a bit whenever she took notice of Alonzo hovering near her desk.
English learners make up nearly half of the class roster, and several read aloud with ease. But Maria still struggles with English vocabulary.
With the whole-classroom activity over, students continued the reading lesson in groups or pairs.
Maria got Alonzo all to herself.
“What’s this say?” Alonzo asked, holding up a cue card with a word in English.
“When,” Maria replied.
Alonzo held up another card.
Maria stared at her with a blank expression.
Alonzo covered up part of the word with her hand.
“Let’s spell it out. What sound does this part make?” showing the letter “i.”
“Now if you add a ‘tss’ sound?”
Maria sat up a little straighter at each word of praise. All the while, Gerardo worked with her own pod of students on a reading comprehension lesson about volcanoes.
Had Alonzo not been in the classroom, Maria might run the risk of falling behind with only separate ESL classes as linguistic support.
Students like Maria look to Alonzo for help at times translating something their teacher said to the whole class. Alonzo makes sure they never get lost in a lesson and checks for any progress she can report to both the classroom and ESL teachers.
Her work alongside her peers has drawn local, state, and out-of-state attention. It’s given Grimes a starting point for thinking out what more can be done to build out support for older English learners, who have less time to both improve their fluency of English and meet graduation requirements.
The districts’ decision to spend most of the pandemic funding on bilingual aides meant other general programs lost out, as have middle and high school English learners, since the aides are focused on younger students.
And to top it all off, the district faces a major catch to continuing to build the momentum it has so far: Federal funding for the aides’ payroll expires in May 2024.
Unless the district can come up with half a million dollars before then, Alonzo might see her time at Russellville cut short.
“What’s this say?” Alonzo asked Maria, holding up another cue card.
“Um. Been?” Maria responds
“That’s right,” Alonzo replied with a playful tilt in her voice. “Like, ‘Where have you been?’”
Lead photo: Dalia Gerardo’s 2nd grade classroom at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala., is pictured here in December 2022. The classroom features both English and Spanish labels and wall decorations.
—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.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as Once Resistant, an Alabama Town Now Sees Its English Learners as Its Future