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Rural Iowa Districts Tackle the English-Language Learner Teacher Shortage

Like many rural communities, Storm Lake, Iowa, has seen a swift change in its student demographics in recent years.

The number of students still learning English has skyrocketed in the town. English-language learners (ELL) account for 41 percent of the student body, and when you include students who have successfully exited language-service programs, that number climbs to nearly 60 percent.

But while this segment of the student population has grown at a fast clip, the district has struggled to hire teachers trained to serve them.  While there isn't a quick fix on the horizon, state lawmakers have increased dedicated state funding for ELLs from $25.9 million in 2006 to $55.4 million in 2016, reports The Des Moines Register.

"It's something we have to deal with in Iowa, as our population becomes more diverse," Iowa state Rep. Walt Rodgers, a Republican from Cedar Falls who chairs the House education committee, told The Register.  "We have to continue to look at ways to make sure people are learning English. It will definitely be on the table for discussion next session."

Currently, Iowa is facing a teacher shortage in all grades for ELL teachers, according to state data. The state ranks ELL teachers tenth in its list of critical shortage areas. That's above teachers of math and science, which are areas where many districts struggle to recruit.

Still, some Iowa education degree programs don't offer coursework to prepare teachers for working with ELLs. And according to state data collected in the 25 school districts with the most ELL students, on average, there is only one dedicated ELL teacher for every 54 ELL students. 

In rural communities like Storm Lake, that ratio climbs above 100 ELL students per teacher. But what Storm Lake has decided to do is to train as many teachers as possible to work with ELLs. So far, more than 50 classroom teachers have earned ELL endorsements.

Additionally, educators from around rural Iowa have been getting together to work out best practices for teaching ELLs in schools where they make up a majority of the student body as well as in settings where they're the only student learning English.

"We have an increasing need to prepare all teachers to work with ELL students," Lia Plakans, an education professor at the University of Iowa, told the newspaper. "How do you support one student while the other 32 are English speakers?"


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