Grant enables College of Education to help English learners in Hazleton

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the Penn State College of Education’s relationship with the community of Hazleton and its school district continues to expand, so do opportunities for the city’s English learners.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition awarded Penn State a five-year, $2.1 million grant that is intended, among other things, to foster ambitious science and language teaching practices in Hazleton elementary classrooms that contribute to English learners’ academic success.

"Science 20/20: Bringing Language Learners into Focus through Community, School, University Partnership" is a professional development initiative that will provide long-term support aimed at leveraging science instruction to complement language development for elementary school teachers in Hazleton Area School District (HASD) and community educators at Hazleton One Community Center.

“STEM education and supporting the academic success of English learners are both areas of growing importance within the state and nationally,” said Carla Zembal-Saul, professor of science education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “Given the research that supports connecting language learning to academic content, and the potential of STEM education to motivate and engage all students through meaningful investigation of natural phenomena and engineering design problems, it made perfect sense to combine the two.”

Former Penn State Assistant Professor Megan Hopkins, now at the University of California, San Diego, leads the project with Zembal-Saul, Hazleton One Community Center Director of Education Andrea Kolb, and Penn State project coordinator May Lee.

Hopkins said school district leadership in Hazleton is excited about the collaboration. “The district has had difficulty keeping pace with its rapidly changing student population,’’ Hopkins said. “I think they’re really hungry to build their teaching and leadership capacity.’’

An October 2016 New York Times story about Hazleton estimated that the city of about 25,000 is now a majority Latino city. The College of Education, under Hopkins’ direction, began to offer a two-week summer immersion program in 2014 that provides Penn State education students hands-on experience working with English learners.

The course builds on a virtual tutoring experience between undergraduate students at University Park and students in the Hazleton Area School District who attend an after school program at the Hazleton One Community Center. During the academic year, groups of students from Penn State mentor and tutor Hazleton students using an online platform. This embedded field experience includes visits from Penn State students to Hazleton and visits from Hazleton students to University Park to meet their tutors.

“In addition to fostering relationships that pre-service teachers might not have with English learners, the virtual tutoring experience allows Penn State students to more deeply understand the unique experiences and assets held by English learners,” said Lee, who spearheads the virtual tutoring experience.

"The model we propose presents an enormous opportunity for the community of educators, scholars, families and community leaders to work together to draw upon the various funds of knowledge that they each have to offer and push forward EL education in the content area of science."

-- Andrea Kolb, director of education, Hazleton One Community Center

Bob Curry, founding president of the Hazleton Integration Project (HIP), which operates the Hazleton One Community Center, sees significant value in the expansion of the partnership between Penn State and Hazleton One that began almost four years ago. “I think the partnership between HIP and Penn State already has provided extraordinary benefits to both organizations,’’ Curry said.

“From our initial collaborative effort that utilizes virtual tutoring to bring our EL students individualized attention from Penn State education students through the development of our creative curriculum for the After School Scholars program, it has become clear that we have synergies that are not only mutually beneficial now but can provide valuable results far into the future.”

Curry also sees Penn State as a leader in education. “Penn State University’s College of Education has proven its commitment to identifying and implementing the most effective educational models and helping to provide the resources to ensure that our programs are successful,’’ he said. “The continuing growth of our partnership will only serve to provide the greatest benefit to our students and community.”

The Science 20/20 project is multifaceted. It is designed to support a pathway toward English as a Second Language (ESL) certification and to create professional development resources that draw on family and community resources and evidence-based practices for supporting English learners’ language and academic development. The research team will evaluate the project by collecting data on teacher and administrator practices, attitudes and interactions, as well as data related to parents’ and community members’ experiences and English learner achievement.

According to Zembal-Saul and Hopkins, the community partnership aspect of the project represents a unique component not found in many other professional development models.

“To have a community-school-university partnership is a unique and potentially powerful feature of this project,’’ Zembal-Saul said. “The Hazleton One Community Center will serve as a hub for project activities. We will bring family members of ELs, community educators, school teachers and administrators, and Penn State faculty and pre-service teachers together to consider how to identify and value cultural and linguistic assets as part of learning opportunities that are designed for students.’’

Cooperation will be the key, according to Kolb. “The model we propose presents an enormous opportunity for the community of educators, scholars, families and community leaders to work together to draw upon the various funds of knowledge that they each have to offer and push forward EL education in the content area of science,” she said.

Hopkins agreed. “What makes this project distinctive is that community educators and family members will be front and center in professional development activities, serving as advisers to and participants in curriculum development,’’ she said.

Zembal-Saul said Kolb inspired the community-based professional development model, which is grounded in practitioner inquiry and includes teams of teachers, administrators, community educators and parents. The teams will undergo professional development and identify particular pedagogical strategies and tools that they would like to implement in classrooms.

“They will study those approaches and resources, and what comes out of that will be shared back into the larger community in the next round of professional development and dissemination,’’ Zembal-Saul said.

Kolb, who now serves as the director of education at the Hazleton One Community Center, said the excitement in Hazleton around Science 20/20 is on the rise. “Even the EL students who attend both HASD schools and the Hazleton One After School Scholars Program are excited to participate and see families, teachers, Penn State professors and students, and their after school educators working together in new ways,” Kolb said.

"Most of all, the children benefit. They will learn to ‘demystify’ science and find the relevance in their everyday lives while attending to academic language in the content area and beyond. This familiarity will encourage them to enter the science/math/tech fields that will be job generators for the next several decades."

-- Bob Curry, founding president of the Hazleton Integration Project

In partnership between Penn State and Hazleton One, Kolb has spent a substantial amount of time over the past three years working to build relationships between the Hazleton Area School District, the Hazleton Integration Project, and Penn State’s College of Education.

“I've had the opportunity to work with incredible educators both inside and outside of schools,’’ Kolb said. “The HASD faculty I've worked with are extremely invested in the success of their students, including their ELs, which is a growing and visible population in their schools.

“The Science 20/20 project presents rich opportunities for teachers to further develop their knowledge and skills and improve instruction for EL students. The Hazleton One faculty are equally invested, and they bring insights from various fields including psychology, social work, and cultural studies in addition to education.

Kolb noted that some Hazleton One faculty are also paraprofessionals in HASD and many are parents of ELs who attend HASD schools. “As such, there is a unique and exciting overlap in the stakeholders' perspectives, and I believe that contributes to the sense of deep community investment that this work requires,’’ she said. “As the project gets underway, I anticipate that the excitement will continue to flourish.”

According to Hopkins, the grant will allow the team to design and develop the professional development model and to evaluate its effectiveness.

“We’ll spend the first couple of years developing the professional development model, and in the later years of the grant we’ll use a quasi-experimental design to see whether the model improves outcomes for teachers, in terms of their attitudes and classroom practices, as well as for students in terms of achievement, attendance and language proficiency growth,’’ Hopkins said.

Hopkins also said the project represents an opportunity to explore science as an avenue for supporting language development for elementary grade students. “Kids are naturally curious about the world, and we hope to take advantage of that by engaging them in science and engineering projects designed with their linguistic and cultural assets in mind,’’ she said.

Curry believes that the project will benefit multiple stakeholders, but may have the greatest impact on the children both in the short-term and far into the future. "Science 20/20 has tremendous potential to impact the lives of everyone involved,’’ he said. “It is based on sound educational principles and combines a strong logic model with an inherently intuitive approach.

“Teachers will develop more effective methods to teach and families will further understand the importance of involvement with their children's education. Most of all, the children benefit. They will learn to ‘demystify’ science and find the relevance in their everyday lives while attending to academic language in the content area and beyond. This familiarity will encourage them to enter the science/math/tech fields that will be job generators for the next several decades," Curry said.

Zembal-Saul and Hopkins anticipate that the project will generate valuable resources for Hazleton and beyond.

Curry is hopeful that the project work will reach communities far beyond Hazleton. “The city of Hazleton has been the focus of an exceptional amount of national attention because our rapidly evolving demographics are seen as a microcosm of the country as a whole regarding the ‘hot button’ immigration issue,’’ he said. He believes that the Science 20/20 project has the potential to “ultimately become part of a blueprint that can help communities solve some of the most pressing issues relating to immigration.”

Kolb agrees, and believes that the team will develop this model of community-university-school partnership so that it can be a useful tool for other communities experiencing similar challenges in their own unique contexts.

“The model offers an innovative approach to community and family engagement, which has long been a matter of interest in education,’’ Kolb said. “Couple that with the scholarly contributions of university faculty and school practitioners, and I believe this model will offer some promising new perspectives and pedagogy.’’

Hopkins added that this work is needed in new immigrant destinations that are experiencing rapid demographic change. “Many educational institutions haven’t kept pace with that change, and we’re eager to collaborate with the Hazleton community to help them build a system to support teachers, students and families that can serve as a model for other school districts,” she said.