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As More Students Struggle With English, Syracuse Teachers Go Back To School

OSWEGO — A group of Syracuse elementary and secondary teachers are building their expertise to teach students with limited English proficiency through a partnership with SUNY Oswego and the New York State Education Department.

The department approached SUNY Oswego’s School of Education last fall about the need to improve instruction for the growing numbers of students in urban schools who are learning English.

Oswego has a strong undergraduate program to prepare teachers of English as a second language (ESL), but the state Education Department wanted to target other teachers, because they also have English language learners in their classrooms.

“They wanted us to start in January,” said Dr. Pat Russo, professor of curriculum and instruction and director of Oswego’s Center for Urban Schools. Even though the timeline was tight, she and her colleagues felt, “We couldn’t say no. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

She coordinates what became the Intensive Teacher Institute Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages Clinically Rich Graduate Certification Program in partnership with the Syracuse City School District and a TESOL team of six from Oswego’s School of Education.

The partnership is underwritten by the state Education Department with $220,000 for two years.

Costs are also shared by the district, the college and each teacher-student.

The 15 teachers now in the program are scheduled to receive graduate certificates in teaching English to speakers of other languages in December.

They will have completed a demanding 12-month program: five courses at the SUNY Oswego Metro Center and three 60-hour practicums — on top of their duties as teachers. Each has a school-based mentor who is an ESL teacher.

The new graduates will be recommended for additional teaching certification in this area.

The program is now recruiting up to 20 more Syracuse teachers to start in January 2016.

Cultural perspective

The teachers in the program learn about how language works and about how cultures differ, that middle class American ways of looking at the world are not universal, that each English language learner has a distinct background, and that there are resources in the community that can help them connect with the students and their families, program organizers said.

“We position them as learners,” said Dr. Bruce Long Peng, director of Oswego’s linguistics program, professor of curriculum and instruction, and a member of the TESOL team. He tells the teachers, “If you let it happen, the students can teach you how to teach them.”

His vision is that in five years many teachers throughout the Syracuse district will have the cultural and linguistic perspective and skills to work effectively with English language learners while teaching their subject to all their students.

Graduates of this Intensive Teacher Institute “will be stronger teachers overall,” Russo said, better equipped to meet the distinctive needs of each of the children they teach.

Plans call for expanding the program to Rochester and Utica as funding becomes available, she noted.