$2.5M PELEA grant to provide critical support for students learning English

Teacher helping students learn English

James M. Loy, Miami University

Every year, refugee and immigrant children arrive in the U.S. Many speak other languages at home and must learn English to thrive in this country, and their numbers are rising.

In the last decade, the number of English language learning children (ELs) across Ohio has doubled to nearly 60,000. Many of these students arrive unaccompanied, or alone, and may have suffered additional trauma from poverty, natural disasters, and political unrest. And many local schools lack the expertise and resources to work with this growing population of students. 

Since 2017, Cincinnati Public Schools saw the number of ELs increase by 86%, and of the 4800 ELs now attending, over 850 are identified as Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE). Across Hamilton County, the number of unaccompanied minors is also up by 88%, and learning English is just one of the challenges these students face.

“ELs have to adjust to a new culture and environment,” says Martha Castañeda, a Miami University professor of teacher education. “[They] have to simultaneously learn a new language and master content in that new language, and they may have experienced traumatic events during the time that their education was interrupted, or because they are away from their family.”

Castañeda is the principal investigator for the Preparing English Learner Education Allies (¡PELEA! Fight!) project designed to address these issues.

With the $2.5M awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, the ¡PELEA! Fight! project will help educators, paraprofessionals, and preservice teachers expand and improve EL instruction across southwest Ohio. In addition to offering scholarships toward the Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) endorsement, PELEA will also help parents and families promote literacy growth at home.

It will also focus on a variety of trauma-responsive strategies, which are especially vital for SLIFE students who might come from war-torn areas and for unaccompanied minors who have been separated from their families.

“When students have faced that kind of trauma, the brain becomes altered,” says Robin Schell, PELEA project director and Miami visiting assistant professor of teacher education. “So we work on strategies that help teachers recognize the signs of this trauma, how it affects their learning, and how to create environments that make students feel more comfortable and more relaxed. So they can actually learn instead of being on alert all the time.”

According to Schell, supporting the increasing number of SLIFE students in Cincinnati Public Schools has been overwhelming. “They just don't have enough teachers who are qualified or certified to work with these students,” she says.

But alongside creating trauma-responsive learning environments, the PELEA project will also support significant efforts to expand and diversify the teacher pipeline at large to further support ELs who typically come from different cultural backgrounds.

“The PELEA project will follow a Grow Your Own program model by supporting culturally and linguistically diverse educators, who are community insiders, to gain licensure and teach in their home communities,” Castañeda says. “When we prepare teachers within the community, we provide the ELs with professionals that know their lived reality, who better understand their experience, and have already made a commitment to live and work in that community.”

The project is the direct result of years of hard work from Castañeda and others from across Miami’s College of Education, Health and Society (EHS), which is dedicated to positively impacting schools and communities through innovative projects and partnerships.

"The ¡PELEA! Fight! grant extends Miami's role in leading Ohio's efforts to strengthen and diversify the teacher education pipeline, and fill a critical shortage of teachers able to work with the growing number of students for whom English is not their first language,” says EHS Dean Jason Lane. “Congratulations to Professor Castañeda and her team on securing the largest external grant in EHS's history."