The minority population in northeast Nebraska has increased by more than 1,000 percent in the last 10 years, but there are few bilingual teachers in local school systems to help the children of the mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants. "It is very difficult for rural school districts to find and recruit minority and bilingual teachers. This allows them the opportunity to hire their own para professionals when those paras earn their teaching degree," said Bill Lopez.
Under the Northeast Nebraska Para-Educator Career Ladder Project, four higher-education institutions will work with several area schools to implement a five-year, $1.97 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to increase the number of bilingual teachers and English as a Second Language-endorsed teachers in the target schools.
"In the state of Nebraska as a whole, the ESL population has increased by 700 percent in the last decade and we're second only to Georgia in the percentage growth of second-language kids in our schools," said Bill Lopez, the grant's primary investigator and an instructor in the Department of Teaching, Learning & Teacher Education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the lead institution for the grant. Vicky Jones of Norfolk, UNL extended education coordinator for the Northeast District, is the project director.
The UNL Department of Teaching, Learning & Teacher Education will work with Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Central Community College-Columbus and Wayne State College to help up to 30 bilingual para-educators earn bachelor's degrees in education from UNL and supplemental ESL endorsements.
The para-educators will study at the community colleges the first two years, and at UNL and Wayne State after that, with most of the upper-level coursework delivered by distance education. They will earn approximately 60 hours from the community colleges, 40 hours from Wayne State and 43 hours from UNL.
The para-educators are working in seven participating school districts -- Columbus, Columbus Lakeview, Madison, Norfolk, Schuyler, South Sioux City and Wakefield -- and in Educational Service Unit No. 8. They are paired with an elementary-school teacher who serves as a mentor. The mentors will also have the opportunity to earn a graduate-level ESL endorsement.
"This is a locally driven project that pools the resources of the four public higher-education institutions in the region to meet an identified need," Jones said. "The Lifelong Learning Center partnership in Norfolk will be important in creating a synergistic climate in the region."
In addition to the goal of adding 30 new bilingual teachers to the faculties in the target school districts, the project will enable all the target schools to effectively teach and assess limited English proficiency students and enable the four post-secondary institutions to modify teacher-education course structures to include ESL strategies.
Funds from the grant will be used for tuition, books, fees, laptop computers and support for participants and mentors, as well as for course development by the post-secondary institutions.
Lopez said the Northeast Nebraska Para-Educator Career Ladder Project will be patterned on UNL's earlier Career Ladder Project with the Omaha Nation Public School and Nebraska Indian Community College that began in 1999 and graduated its first teachers this year. "Bilingual and Minority teachers have a positive impact on student achievement. They also serve as role models for Bilingual and Minority students. Hopefully, with success in schools, many of those students will go on to college and some becoming teachers themselves," says Lopez.
"The difference is that those para-educators had associate's (two-year) degrees and we're starting from scratch. Most of the para-educators in this grant probably have no college," he said.
"This is the fourth major grant we've received in the last five years for Nebraska ESL. We're starting to make a name for ourselves in terms of developing English competencies in working with English language-learning kids."