Plains Talking

Holly Hansen-Thomas and Liliana Grosso explain how Project SMARTTTEL will use technology to help rural teachers train English Language Learners in Science and Math

In 2012, the Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA) of the Department of Education funded 73 new professional development projects. Among them was SMARTTTEL, an initiative designed to address the needs of English language learners (ELLs) in rural public schools in north Texas.

The English language learner (ELL) population in public schools has more than doubled (57%) in the last decade alone (Ballantyne, Sanderman, & Levy, 2008). Similarly, the ELL population in rural schools has continued to increase (Johnson, J., Strange, M., & Madden, K. 2010). The situation in rural Texas mirrors the national trend. Recent data suggests the ELL population stands at 19% (Rural Policy Matters, 2010), or close to one fifth of all students. Demo­graphic trends are shifting such that international immigration to the northern areas of rural Texas is a new and common phenomenon (Bustamante, Brown, & Irby, 2010). The academic achievement of this student population is not good — rural schools underperform on high stakes tests, and Hispanic students (the largest ethnic group of ELLs in the state) dropout at nearly triple the rate of white students (TEA, 2007-2008).

Compounding this challenge, many teachers in rural school districts report having a lack of training to meet the needs of ELLs (Lewis, Parsad, Carey, Bartfei, Smerdon, & Green, 1999). Rural schools also suffer when it comes to hiring well-qualified teachers (NCES, 2008). In Texas, specifically, 23% of vacancies in rural schools were not filled because of the lack of qualified teachers, especially in the areas of math and ESL (RSCT, 2004). However, compared to urban and suburban school districts, rural schools have advantages such as smaller size, lower student-teacher ratio, stronger ties with community and lower discipline problems (University of Michigan, 2012). In addition, they benefit from technology with more opportunities for distance education for professional development (PD).

Studies conducted with teachers in rural settings report unique challenges arising from feelings of professional isolation and frustrations with the limited (and often inequitable) access to an array of instructional resources (Lauer, Stoutemyer, & Buhler, 2005; Branburg, 2001). But technology can help. “Technology can offer rural students educational and employment opportunities they otherwise might not have… The development of or the entering into a consortium with other local education agencies, institutions of higher education… with the capacity to contribute to technology training…” (Congressional Record, 2001, p10438) is highly encouraged. Appropriate technology use, therefore, has the potential to alleviate such rural challenges via creation and development of professional communities offering both collaborative spaces for learning and multiple opportunities for peer interaction and support.

To address both rural schools’ needs and potential, Texas Woman’s University (a state university located north of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex) partnered with the Education Service Center XI and nine Texas rural school districts to develop Project SMARTTTEL (Science and Mathematics for ALL: Rural Teacher Training through Technology for English Learners). The project received $1.6 million in 2012 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition (OELA). Through this partnership, SMARTTTEL will be serving at least 2000 ELLs in the north Texas districts of Aubrey, Decatur, Godley, Little Elm, Millsap, Paris, Poolville, Rio Vista, and Valley View.

The Education Service Center Region XI is the third largest educational service center in the state of Texas, and nearly 70% of its cooperating districts are classified as rural. Furthermore, many of the region’s rural districts are faced with the issue of how to best serve their ELL populations. Some of these school districts have ELL populations as high as 30%, while others which have not traditionally had second language learners struggle with lower numbers of ELLs.

As evidenced by their interest and enthusiasm in the SMARTTTEL project, teachers, as well as their support personnel and administrators, have shown that they both acknowledge the need for more training, and are willing to undertake the work involved in better serving the needs of their ELLs.

Project SMARTTTEL’s ultimate goal is to improve the academic achievement of rural schools’ ELLs in the areas of mathematics and science, and to help close the recruitment and knowledge gap of teachers in rural schools through the use of distance education technology. SMARTTTEL will offer: (1) Online professional development (PD) and ESL certification for 54 Grade 4-12 math and science teachers in partnering districts, and (2) a mentoring experience to expand the effect of the PD.

Professional development will comprise of four graduate courses centering on ESL methodology, multicultural education, second language acquisition (SLA) theory, and a specialized class in mentoring to help project participants assist their mathematics and science teaching peers in the aforementioned three core areas. These core courses have been chosen based on research conducted as part of a previous National Professional Development (NPD) funded project (Hansen-Thomas & Casey, 2010), and for their utility in preparing teachers for ESL certification. All four courses are being tailored to the particular needs of the rural secondary teachers [based on a formative needs assessment carried out by the SMARTTTEL team and complying with Texas education standards including the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), English Proficiency Language standards (ELPS), and college and career readiness standards (CCRS)]. To help teachers complete these courses, the project is providing them with their own laptop computer, equipped with the latest cutting-edge software for distance education.

In addition to the core course curricula, SMARTTTEL teachers will participate in a three-day summer institute to help them implement quality, practical, and research-based educational experiences for ELLs. The summer institute will feature regional and national professional development training, and will also include a Spanish language component. The Spanish course will help the (non-Spanish-speaking) rural teachers to develop an understanding of critical Spanish phrases and vocabulary which they can use to communicate with their students. Since the majority of the ELLs in rural Texas schools are Spanish-speaking, it is expected that an emphasis on Spanish used in the classroom will serve the teachers well.

Upon completion of these courses, participants will be required to mentor at least one other math or science teacher in their home district or campus to multiply the effect of their professional development. They will work closely with their mentees under the supervision of the TWU instructor to provide support in the areas of need with respect to ELL education as designated by the mentor and mentee.

As stated before, the use of technology to deliver online professional development will help meet the needs of rural educators as it will provide opportunities for association with and participation in multiple communities of practice. Through targeted and focused interaction with other educators in virtual spaces, teacher mentors may begin to acquire both access to resources and a sense of control over their own professional learning in a manner similar to that of their more urban/suburban counterparts. From such experiences, participants will acquire the tools necessary to appropriately evaluate web resources for accuracy and support of student learning.

It is projected that at least 90% of the teacher mentors will successfully complete the training program and obtain ESL supplemental teaching certification. In addition, the teachers’ ability to incorporate best practices into their own school settings will be assessed by student achievement measures including district benchmark data and accountability data on state standardized tests (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, TAKS; State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness STAARS). That is to see if the students of SMARTTTEL teachers perform at or above region/district averages for ELLs in mathematics and science, as well as on Texas English Language Proficiency Assessment System, or TELPAS, the state mandated language test used to determine language proficiency and growth in Texas.

As a result of this program, it is expected that rural north Texas teachers will have a better comprehension of not only the theoretical and foundational aspects of ESL pedagogy and methodology, but also of the ways in which it can be applied to mathematics and science teaching to increase ELL learning. Project SMARTTTEL aims to fill critical gaps in professional development so that all can benefit: schools, teachers, and most importantly, students.

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Bustamante, R., Brown, G., & Irby, B. (2010) “Advocating for English language learners: U.S. teacher leadership in rural Texas schools.” In Schafft, K. & Jackson, A. Rural Education for the Twenty-First Century (pp. 232-252). Pennsylvania University Press, University Park, PA.
Congress. (2001, June 12, 2001). Section 201. Rural Technology Education Academies Act, Sec. 2502.
Johnson, J., Strange, M., & Madden, K. (2010). The rural dropout problem: An invisible achievement gap. Arlington, VA: The Rural School and Community Trust (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No ED516681).
Lauer, P. A., Stoutemyer, K. L., & Buhler, R. J. V. (2005). The McREL Rural Technology Initiative: Research and Evaluation Study. Aurora, CO: Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.
Lewis, L., Parsad, B., Carey, N., Bartfai, N., Farris, E., Smerdon, B., & Green, B. (1999). Teacher quality: A report on the preparation of public school teachers. (NCES 1999-080). Washington, D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved April 20, 2011 from
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Rural Policy Matters. (2010). “Facts and figures about English language learners and rural students.” A Newsletter of Rural School and Community Action. 12(1).
Texas Education Agency. (2007-2008). “Region performance report (Academic Excellence Indicator System).”
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Holly Hansen-Thomas is associate professor of ESL and Bilingual Education at Texas Woman’s University. Her research interests include ESL training for mainstream secondary level teachers, and ELLs’ development of academic language.

Liliana Grosso is a grant coordinator in the Department of Teacher Education at Texas Woman’s University in Denton, TX. Her research interests have focused on pre-service and in-service teacher training.