Story updated 11/22 at 5:30 p.m. with additional interviews.
Thanks to a big federal grant, the University of North Florida plans to prepare more people to teach Duval County students from other countries.
On Tuesday morning, Kings Trail Elementary paraprofessional Nancy Bravo was working with a group of second-graders who all speak different languages.
The students were writing out words like “cat” and “kite” and identifying the long and short vowel sounds.
More than half of Kings Trail students are learning English as a second language. It has the fifth-highest percentage of students in the district who fit that description.
In this one class, Bravo said, “We have a student from Africa, from different countries in Latin America, Vietnam, Arabic students.”
Duval Schools have seen an influx of students who don’t speak English, rising this year to 6,000 from more than 130 countries. That’s nearly double the number a decade ago and 10 times the amount in 1990, at just 600.
But the number of ESOL teachers — that’s English for Speakers of Other Languages—has remained low, says Duval Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.
“When we talk about recruiting and retaining teachers, one of our greatest challenges is ESOL,” he said.
Now, a $2.2 million grant will create a new UNF program called the ESOL Career Ladder for Student Success, or ESOL CLASS.
The goal is certifying 160 ESOL teachers over the next five years.
Additionally, the project will serve English language learners’ parents through workshops and other resources.
UNF Associate Professor Otilia Salmón, who was a second-English-language learner herself, said when kids don’t have proper teachers, they can feel isolated.
“I was one of those kids,” she said. “I was the only one in the whole boarding school, even the teachers, that spoke Spanish. I felt very lonely.”
Salmón was instrumental in applying for the grant. She said certified ESOL teachers know the necessary teaching techniques to help students who speak any language.
And Bravo, the Kings Trail paraprofessional, said she’s taking UNF up on the opportunity to help students. She’s a former college engineering professor and emigrated from Cuba in 2013 speaking little English.
She remembers when her second-graders began kindergarten.
“When they start the first day I remember they were only crying. They were completely lost. That touched my heart. I decided to be a teacher here in the United States,” she said.
More certified teachers mean more “shelter classes” with certified ESOL teachers and several helpers, said Ingrid Carias, the Duval ESOL Department Director.
Carias said she’s hoping the new teachers getting certified through UNF will want to teach high school ESOL classes. Englewood High has more than 400 students who have recently arrived in the U.S and don’t speak fluent English.
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Reporter Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.