U of A Funds Summer School Sessions to Boost English Learning

Students use plastic pieces for a math lesson.
Photo by Heidi Wells

Students use plastic pieces for a math lesson.

The first day of school for some Springdale kindergartners wasn't so unfamiliar after they spent two weeks attending a University of Arkansas-funded summer school for children who are English language learners.

That was just one small side benefit of a program that focused on improving reading and math skills for children in kindergarten through seventh grades.

 "The kids who will be going into kindergarten are from preschool," said Kimberlyn Gibson, director of the session for children in kindergarten through third grade. "They had never been to their new school. Now, we think the first day of school will be a breeze. They have been in the rooms and they are used to the structure. They got to meet their principals and to go through the arrival and dismissal process."

Children attending the middle school for the first time will also be more confident, said Shelly McKeever, director of the session for children in fourth through seventh grades. Both sessions ended Aug. 3

"I feel like they have a head start on being language learners, and they are also getting a boost in math," she said. "This is giving them confidence and the language will start coming. We are also seeing personal relationships develop between children and teachers."

Gibson, Project CONNECT director, and McKeever, Project SOAR director, coordinated the sessions under the direction of Janet Penner-Williams, an associate professor of educational leadership. Penner-Williams received two five-year grants of about $2.7 million last year each from the U.S. Department of Education to increase the number of educators prepared to teach English language learners in Arkansas schools.

Penner-Williams partnered with the Springdale School District and the Arkansas Department of Education. In addition to the outreach efforts for parent, family and community engagement, such as the ESL sessions attended by 132 children, the grants pay for a limited number of Springdale teachers and U of A students to take courses to add the English as a second language endorsement or complete a new 15-credit-hour graduate certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Gibson and McKeever recruited 32 teachers in the Springdale schools to work with the children. After teachers applied, the directors observed them in their classrooms, looking for best ESL teaching strategies and culturally responsive methods. Three days before the summer school sessions started, Gibson and McKeever teamed up with the Springdale district's ESL department to provide professional development for the participating teachers.

The directors invited children to attend based on their reading levels from data collected last winter and spring, McKeever said. The sessions focused not on children with newly emerging language abilities but on those who are progressing but not yet proficient.

"We wanted to work with ones who are getting closer to being proficient in English," she said. "The ones who need an extra push before starting school this year. We're anxious to see their scores this fall and see if the summer school provided a boost."

Teacher-to-student ratios were small, usually one teacher to six students, McKeever said, giving teachers a chance to evaluate students after a few days with them to see where their needs were and direct the curriculum in an individualized way, further challenging the students.

Parents also attended a preliminary session to learn about what would happen during summer school. They received bags of books in English, Spanish and Marshallese, journals and ideas for activities so they could work at home with their children attending summer school, along with siblings and cousins. Translators were available at the schools to help parents understand.

"I heard one child say, 'I didn't know about going to school two weeks before we have to go to school but I'm having fun and I feel like I'm learning,'" McKeever said.

University of Arkansas teacher-education undergraduate students - some getting their first experience in classrooms, Master of Arts in Teaching students and recent graduates also worked at the sessions.

The new graduates have teaching jobs and can take what they learned and apply it in their classrooms, McKeever said.


Heidi S. Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions
479-575-3138, heidisw@uark.edu


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