For many school districts in multi-ethnic communities, supporting the needs of English language learners can be like running a never-ending race. The Clark County School District (CCSD) is training for the ultimate marathon. While many districts across the country have significant populations of English language learners, one in every five Southern Nevada public school students is an emergent bilingual.
To address this challenge, UNLV’s department of early childhood, multilingual, and special education created an accelerated master's degree program in English language development. The program, Progressive Understandings of Emergent Bilingual Learners Opportunities, also known as Project PUEBLO, started in the Summer of 2022 and graduated its first cohort of 96 teachers in spring 2023 at an impressive 98.9% completion rate.
Free Education for Educators
Project PUEBLO is a one-year program offered tuition-free for current CCSD teachers. The financial accessibility is made possible by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Education in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds provide emergency financial assistance to public school districts across the country to address pandemic learning loss and invest in infrastructure and programs.
The ESSER III grant supports 300 teachers with specialist English language learner endorsements, allowing them to better support emergent bilinguals in the classroom. Through Project PUEBLO specifically, it provides in-service elementary and secondary level teachers with tools and strategies to support the learning, content, and language development of emergent bilingual students.
The initiative is an outgrowth of Project E3: Enhancing, Engaging, and Empowering Teachers for the Next Generation of English Learners. Its new iteration as Project PUEBLO is a redesigned program focusing on academic language, fluid language use, and content learning, and was specifically designed to address the needs of emergent bilinguals in the Clark County School District. The program's new name also reflects its innovative approach to supporting the learning needs of these students.
Honoring the Skills Emergent Bilinguals Bring to the Classroom
There is a critical need for programs like Project PUEBLO in Southern Nevada, and CCSD’s attempts to support language acquisition in schools have left room for improvement. Alain Bengochea, an assistant professor in the department of early childhood, multilingual, and special education, leads the Project PUEBLO effort. “In a state where the proportion of emergent bilinguals is double the national average, we need a tangible solution to meet the needs of both students and teachers," said Bengochea. "In other densely Latinx populated states, like Florida, it is mandatory that all teachers have a credential to teach emergent bilinguals. Unfortunately, similar provisions are not yet required in Nevada. The hope is that policymakers will enforce these requirements for CCSD teachers soon.”
Emergent bilingual students do a lot to bridge the gap for their non-English speaking social circles. By equipping teachers to provide targeted foundational language skills, students have the opportunity to further reach their potential as multilingual members of those communities. When linguistically diverse students are supported, they can then strengthen communication channels by supporting family members and others as they seek vital resources (e.g., at the grocery store, with doctors) or help younger siblings in their own educational pathways.
The focus is on honoring the children’s multilingualism as an asset instead of a hindrance, said Bengochea, noting that some individuals’ perspectives may be misguided by the longstanding myth to primarily focus instruction on English at the cost of a child's home language. “The program is not solely focused on English," he said. "It instead centers what emergent bilingual students know and how they could leverage all their languages as tools for further learning.”
Leveraging students’ multilingualism could prove to be a needed support missing in Nevada’s previous attempts to bridge the gap in English-medium classrooms.
Teachers are equipped with the skills to tackle the task at hand by taking some specialized courses, including:
- TESL 754 - Assessment and Evaluation of English Learners
- TESL 755 - Language Acquisition and Development
- TESL 780 - Translanguaging Pedagogies & Research.
These classes provide long-term planning tools that prioritize academic language learning and place it at the center of unit planning. Project PUEBLO students complete coursework and projects that challenge them to promote inquiry while using a multilingual lens, focus on academic language across various elementary and secondary content areas, and reflect on current policy and advocacy efforts to better support emergent bilinguals beyond the classroom.
Tracey West, a visiting lecturer for Project PUEBLO and former classroom teacher, was at a loss when she first encountered a classroom with over 40% emerging bilingual students. For her, Project PUEBLO is a game-changer. She understands the benefits the program provides, specifically deepening understanding of language development and how to best support students learning an additional language. As a graduate of the same master’s program in which she currently teaches, she mentioned, “It gave me a framework to scaffold academic language by utilizing the assets that students already bring with them.”
Like West, PUEBLO graduates learn to anchor everything that students bring to the classroom to frame academics through their home language(s) while simultaneously developing English and content knowledge. By doing so, these teachers help students become better integrated into the classrooms and develop content area literacy while also valuing multilingualism.
Project PUEBLO is one of many important steps UNLV is taking to improve the future of CCSD students and educators. With the support of ESSER III funding, they are offering the program to a larger number of teachers this summer. As more states recognize the importance of dual language programs and provide additional support for emergent bilinguals, programs like Project PUEBLO will continue to play a vital role in promoting academic success and equity for all students.