Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Twi, Portuguese, Khmer, Bengali, Portuguese, Vietnamese are only a few of the 173 languages spoken by students and families in the School District of Philadelphia. Like many large cities in the United States, Philadelphia's sizable and increasing population of Multilingual Learners of English (MLEs) brings new responsibilities and opportunities for schools. As local schools change and grow to include students from more culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, it is essential that teaching is high quality, as well as accessible, and that all educators create spaces where multilingualism is honored, and students feel a sense of belonging.
In pursuit of this goal, a faculty and staff team in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) at Temple University has embarked on an ambitious journey designing and implementing the Temple School L.I.F.E. Project for Multilingual Students in Philadelphia elementary schools.
The acronym L.I.F.E. stands for Leadership, Instruction and Family Engagement. These three areas are a central focus of this five-year, three-million-dollar initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of English Language Acquisition, designed to enhance the educational landscape for MLEs. Drawing from insights gained from their 2016 project, a $2.7 million five-year initiative focused on middle and secondary multilingual learners, the current project has partnered with eight carefully selected linguistically diverse Philadelphia elementary schools to support the efforts of teachers, school leaders, and parents via a school-wide, comprehensive, sustainable, and replicable professional development model.
The core team, led by CEHD's Associate Dean for Teacher Education and Professional Experiences, Tamara Sniad, and Associate Professor Sabina Neugebauer, includes Project Director Megaera Mabry, Assistant Director Karen Liebner, Professor and ESL Certification Coordinator Jill Swavely, and Project Coordinator Natalia Ramirez-Urena. Their collective expertise ensures the program's effective implementation and ongoing success. Center for Assessment, Evaluation and Education Policy is serving as the evaluator.
"Historically, there's been a lot of focus on, and important work being done around, classrooms and instruction and preparing teachers to work with MLEs," Sniad explains. "Our model is really focused on elevating and looking more broadly at the overall school experiences of MLEs. Children's educational experiences begin as they approach the school building and continue as they interact with school personnel, including security guards and cafeteria staff; navigate the halls and engage with their peers. How they navigate their days impacts their sense of self, belonging and 'readiness to learn'."
Neugebauer, an expert on literacy development of traditionally underserved students in under-resourced elementary and middle schools, shares, "This project is focused on targeting multilingual learners of English. With a focus on Leadership, Instruction and Family Engagement, the project aims to create inclusive learning environments, equip teachers with effective instructional strategies, and actively involve families in the early stage to prevent opportunity gaps and facilitate positive academic experiences that can catapult learners towards a successful educational trajectory."
"There are programs that focus on each of these components. But there aren't many where all three are integrated. There is a lot of professional development for teachers. What we find is that programs are much more successful when there is systemic support from administration and when parents are supportive and actively involved."
— Megeara Mabry, Director of the Temple School L.I.F.E. Project
The first pillar of the project, Leadership, recognizes the pivotal role school leaders play in shaping the educational experience for multilingual learners. Through targeted leadership professional development, the program provides tools and resources for school leaders to create environments that foster inclusivity and support the unique needs of MLEs. By focusing on leadership development, the project aims to lay a strong foundation for positive change within school communities. "We see leaders as critical to all these pieces because leaders have a bird's eye view of the school, they set the culture and climate, and they're really the ones who can transform procedures and structures in the building," Neugebauer says. Each school leadership team in the 8 partnership schools consists of three members who attend professional development institutes, workshops and meet regularly with a project coach.
The second component, Instruction, is centered around equipping teachers with research-based instructional strategies tailored to the diverse needs of multilingual students. Through ongoing training and support, the program seeks to create a cadre of educators well-versed in addressing the linguistic and cultural diversity present in today's classrooms.
The project does so by providing professional development to both in-service teachers and pre-service teachers. Sniad emphasizes, "In addition to providing continuing education workshops to in-service teachers, the project includes a funded pathway for undergraduate Early Childhood Education (ECE) students to earn the Pennsylvania ESL Specialist Certification while completing their initial certification program. Specifically, participating pre-service teachers in the ECE program receive in-state tuition scholarships to take ESL Certification courses over the summer, and internship stipends while they are completing their year-long student teaching in one of the School L.I.F.E. Project partner schools." The first cohort of pre-service teachers are currently in their first semester of student teaching and applications are open for the second cohort.
The third pillar, Family Engagement, involves a bilingual family literacy program led by district-employed bilingual paraprofessionals. The School District of Philadelphia employs a team of 120 bilingual paraeducators, called Bilingual Counseling Assistants (BCAs), to serve as liaisons between multilingual families and the school by providing translations, communicating with families, supporting educators, and supporting ELs. BCAs are assigned to schools with the greatest need based on language population.
"We believe BCAs are the best people to deliver programming for parents, not only because they can communicate with families in their first languages, but also because they live in the communities they serve and have excellent retention rates in the school district," Mabry shares. "Additionally, many of them serve at multiple schools, which will ultimately broaden the reach of our program. We partner with Children's Literacy initiative (CLI) for the purpose of training the BCAs to lead the family literacy workshops. This work is not only to be able to provide programming in the languages of the multilingual families, but also to increase the potential for the programming to continue beyond the grant years."
After less than a year of planning, the program kicked off in August 2023 with a dynamic Summer Institute, bringing together professionals, including in-service teachers, school administrators and other key leaders, ESL specialists, school and family liaisons from the School District of Philadelphia, as well as Temple faculty, staff, and guest speakers who shared their diverse expertise.
"The institute is an immersive experience that sets the stage for a collaborative journey, which prepares people to begin this work," says Mabry.
Neugebauer further adds that there were two central goals of the institute to support the work over the coming years. "The first goal was about creating a joint vision between key collaborators. To develop a shared vision required having everyone there, at the same time, in a space to co-construct knowledge around the idea of supporting multilingual learners and really getting everyone motivated and excited about a more supportive, welcoming, and pedagogically rigorous learning environment for multilingual learners. The second goal was about building a toolkit composed of strategies, practices, and approaches for teaching and leading successful models for multilingual learners of English."
The ongoing success of the initiative is attributed to a dedicated and experienced team leading the charge.
Megeara Mabry, Director of the Temple School L.I.F.E. Project, emphasizes, "There are programs that focus on each of these components. But there aren't many where all three are integrated. There is a lot of professional development for teachers. What we find is that programs are much more successful when there is systemic support from administration and when parents are supportive and actively involved."
Temple University's School L.I.F.E. Project for Multilingual Students stands as a beacon of innovation and dedication to enhancing the educational opportunities for multilingual learners. By focusing on Leadership, Instruction, and Family Engagement, the program is poised to make a lasting impact on the lives of students, educators and families. As the project unfolds over the next four years, it is likely to set new standards for effective, inclusive, and sustainable practices in teaching and learning to and for multilingual learners.
If you are interested in learning more about this project, please contact the Director of the Temple School L.I.F.E. Project, Megeara Mabry, at email@example.com.