Over 2,000 students have come to Connecticut from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. Many of them have settled in Connecticut's biggest cities, and their arrival has highlighted the need for more teachers who speak Spanish and who are certified to teach English language learners, or ELLs.
"There was a point when a lot of our positions were filled with long-term substitute teachers who were not certified,” said Adela Jorge, supervisor of the bilingual and English-as-a-second-language program for Waterbury Schools.
The district has taken in over 300 students from Puerto Rico since the hurricane, but Waterbury recognized the need to fix this problem years ago, and now they've made significant strides.
"At this point, we're very close to having every position filled with a certified teacher,” Jorge said. “Because the substitute teachers that we have right now are in a pathway to certification."
Waterbury basically looked to the community for people who either speak Spanish or have some interest in teaching ELLs. They get them started a substitute, while they work on getting their certification.
She said the system works on several levels, but importantly, it lets the candidates have some prospect of job security, because the district is invested in their certification.
"We want teachers to be able to teach,” Jorge said. “We want them to be able to focus on meeting the needs of the students. If you're working as a substitute teacher without a contract you're going to have other worries."
The state has also made efforts to fix the problem. It offers an alternate, non-college route to certification for teachers of ELLs. The program's called ARCTELL for short. But it’s intensive, and it requires over 400 hours of various activities.
It's also a challenge to go the traditional route, through college. Elizabeth Howard is a professor of bilingual education at UConn. She said part of the problem is that aspiring teachers are focusing on the basics of becoming a teacher. A lot of them don't consider teaching English as a second language, or TESOL.
"It's not until they actually get out into the field, and see that they may be working in a place with English language learners, where they may think, 'Oh, this might be an option for me to be a bilingual teacher or a TESOL teacher’,” Howard said. “And if they don't land in a place, in a district, where there's a high incidence of English learners, then it would not occur to them at all necessarily, they wouldn't see the need for it."
Howard said it's important for everyone in a school to have some skills in working the English learners. She's working on a program at UConn that would do just that. It wouldn't be as rigorous as getting a full certification. But it would be a sort of middle ground that any teacher could take to give them some skills to help them work with English learners.
That would be helpful, she said, because even if school has TESOL teachers, the time spent with English learners is limited throughout the day.
"It really is the responsibility of everybody in the building to serve the English learners,” Howard said.
The students are spending time in the general education classroom, with the PE teacher, with the librarian. They're interacting constantly with adults in the school who don't have any TESOL training.
"So that's why it's really necessary for a lot of people in the building to not necessarily have the same level of preparation as a full TESOL specialist, but to have a lot more than they typically get,” she said.
Connecticut's colleges and universities have been hit by the loss of federal grant money that paid for students to get certified in TESOL or bilingual education. Howard said the grant money paid for about 10 to 15 students a year at UConn, but without the money, that's down to only about two or three students.
The grant used to fund about 115 projects across the country. But starting in 2015, the numbers started to drop. The recent round paid out money to 42 schools. None of them were in Connecticut.