Seymour addressing growth of English language learners

In the last five years, Seymour Community School Corp. has experienced tremendous growth in students classified as English learners.

The number has increased from 575 to more than 1,300 English language learning students.

Every single SCSC teacher will have English learners in their classrooms, said Diane Altemeyer, director of federal and state programs.

“Our goal is to ensure teachers have the capacity to instruct English learners and feel empowered to do so,” she said.

Through a partnership with Indiana University Southeast’s School of Education, 13 Seymour teachers recently completed a new cohort program for teacher licensing in English as a new language/English as a second language. They will take the final exam this summer to add the license to their current teaching credentials.

The EL cohort program is an intensive 15 credit hours consisting of five graduate-level classes. The teachers took one class each semester and one summer class over the past 18 months all while continuing to teach full time during a pandemic.

Participating teachers in the first cohort are Kelly Reasoner, Adam Wolka and Jeanna Eppley from Seymour High School; Kelli Reinhart from Seymour Middle School; Ashley Stahl, Jennifer Miller and Natalie Smith from the SMS Sixth Grade Center; Aimee Caudill, Jill Baurle and Meghan Fleenor from Margaret R. Brown Elementary School; Angie Engle and Mackenzie Wieneke from Seymour-Jackson Elementary School; and Riley Stuckwisch from Seymour-Redding Elementary School.

The second cohort, which includes nine teachers, will finish the program next spring.

“We are in the process of naming a new group that will begin in the fall,” Altemeyer said. “I anticipate between nine and 12 teachers will be in the 2023 cohort.”

SCSC has funded professional development for teachers to support English language learners through Title III and non-English-speaking grants. Two years ago, officials decided instead of paying for one-day conferences and workshops, the school corporation would fund tuition and book costs for teachers to get specialty licensure.

“Seymour is blessed with amazing educators who continue to grow and learn through professional development with the purpose to meet the needs of students in their classroom,” Altemeyer said. “The licensing opportunity is just one example of educators at Seymour Community Schools carrying out the vision of soaring to excellence, everyone, every day.”

After their first class in 2019, the program went completely virtual due to COVID-19, making it more difficult for the teachers to communicate with their instructor and to support each other.

“I think it helped us to empathize with what our students were going through with figuring out and adjusting to eLearning,” Engle said.

With many of her students being nonnative English speakers and in fact learning English as a third language in some cases, Engle said it only made sense to expand her own skills.

“I wanted to be able to better support them in my classroom through new strategies and understand how to make learning more meaningful to them,” she said. “How do you teach a child to read and write when they don’t speak fluent English and I don’t speak fluent Spanish?”

Baurle had been a teacher for many years at Brown and noticed the continued growth of the ELL population there. Brown has almost 400 EL students, so she decided to change from a regular classroom teacher to an EL teacher.

“One of the most important and valuable lessons that I have learned from the cohort program is the importance of understanding the cultural background of our students and understanding their individual needs when learning a second language,” she said.

She connects with her students each day while using the strategies and methods she has learned to increase their listening, speaking, reading and writing skills, she said.

Fleenor said she has been able to use what she has learned from the cohort program to create more inclusive, engaging and culturally relevant lessons and to build stronger relationships with her students and their parents.

“Relationships drive everything we do,” she said. “We need to ensure that students and their families feel welcome, safe and included in our schools and in our classrooms, which sometimes means going about things in new, creative ways to accommodate the many different cultures and family dynamics within our community.”

Although challenging, Engle said the program was worth the effort and has made her a better teacher for all of her students, giving her a unique perspective on barriers to learning, including students who come from low-income households, students with learning difficulties and language barriers.

“The great thing is that these strategies don’t work just for our ELL students. They make learning more accessible to all students,” she said. “Any time a teacher can gain knowledge in how to reach students, keep them engaged and make learning meaningful, it is a win.”

Becoming a licensed ENL/ESL teacher only made sense to Fleenor, who said the majority of her students for the last eight years have been English language learners.

“I have seen the unique challenges they face and how hard they work to overcome them,” she said. “Anything I can do to help them reach their goals and be successful is something I wanted to pursue.”

The classes required a lot from each teacher, including reading, researching, writing reflections, creating lessons and resources to share with other teachers and field experience.

“The biggest challenge for me was certainly finding time to sit down and just do the work,” Fleenor said. “Couple that with the unusual demands of the past year and one might see how this could be a struggle.”

But one worth overcoming, she said, just as her students work to overcome their challenges.

Caudill currently has 16 EL students in her class, a number she has averaged the past five years.

“I wanted to gain any and all information possible to help them be successful in the classroom,” she said of why she wanted to be a part of the EL cohort.

She has learned and incorporated strategies to overcome language barriers by providing students with sheltered instruction. She uses visuals and the students’ native language when possible.

“I also try to provide not only whole group but small group instruction opportunities for my EL students to work with a partner,” she said.

Other techniques include modeling a task before students are expected to complete it, increasing wait time for EL students to respond, using gestures and simplifying language during instruction.

“I also build background knowledge to help students relate learned or old information to new information,” she said. “Connecting prior knowledge to new learning helps tremendously with comprehension.”

It wasn’t easy balancing her full-time teaching job, a part-time job, her family and taking college courses all at the same time, but she’s proud of what she and her fellow teachers have accomplished.

She plans to share what she has earned with her colleagues to improve the overall teaching and learning experience at Brown and within the corporation.

“The demographics in our community are changing, and we need to be able to assist all of our students in becoming productive members of our society,” she said.

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Participants in Seymour Community School Corp.’s first English language teacher licensing cohort program

Kelly Reasoner, Adam Wolka and Jeanna Eppley from Seymour High School; Kelli Reinhart from Seymour Middle School; Ashley Stahl, Jennifer Miller and Natalie Smith from the SMS Sixth Grade Center; Aimee Caudill, Jill Baurle and Meghan Fleenor from Margaret R. Brown Elementary School; Angie Engle and Mackenzie Wieneke from Seymour-Jackson Elementary School; and Riley Stuckwisch from Seymour-Redding Elementary School

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