Public Schools Struggling to Find Enough Teachers Certified to Serve Students Learning English

One hundred fifty thousand city students are still learning English, and the public school system is struggling to find enough teachers certified to serve them.

A group of students who recently arrived in the country speak a range of languages, but not English. Britt Fremstad is in charge of teaching them global history. 

"I have students not even able to read or write in their native language. And so this is the first time they're printing," Fremstad said.

It's extremely complicated to help students master history, or chemistry or calculus, when they don't speak English. And in many cases, city schools fail. The graduation rate among students learning English was 31 percent last year. 

"Knowing what kinds of words they struggle with, what kind of sentence formation they struggle with is something that is not always intuitive. It takes a lot of practice," Fremstad said.

The city is facing a major shortage of teachers like Ms. Fremstad, who has a masters degree and state certification in teaching English.

Two years ago, state regulations began requiring that students learning English be taught, at least part-time, by someone specially certified. And while the city Education Department hopes to hire 300 more English language teachers this year, a spokeswoman could not say how many more are needed. Experts estimate it may be in the thousands. 

"If we're serious about serving immigrant students and immigrant families in the city, we need to do a better job," said Shael Polakow-Suransky, president of the Bank Street College of Education.

This fall, Bank Street College of Education will launch a new degree program to help certify more teachers, but it will train just two dozen per year.

The goal is to prepare educators who will guide students towards mastering English without devaluing their original languages. 

"We don't want them to learn English at the expense of who they are," said Christian Solorza, director of language programs at Bank Street.

There was another motivation for the new degree besides the city's teacher shortage. Bank Street says by launching the new program, it's also attempting to counteract some of the immigration rhetoric coming from the Trump administration. 

"We can't necessarily influence everything that is happening in Washington, but we can make sure that we really prepare teachers that are excellent at language development and literacy to work with our new English language learners," Polakow-Suransky said.

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