Lessons from Chicago Public Schools on Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners

Chicago Public Schools serves over 360,000 students, 18.7% of whom are English language learners (ELL). The Spanish-speaking student population, in particular, makes up about 35% of the total student population. I spoke with Felicia Butts, Director of Teacher Residencies at Chicago Public Schools, about their growing bilingual teacher residency program.

headshot for Felicia Butts, Chicago Public Schools

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Could you tell us about Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) residency programs focused on preparing educators to work in bilingual classrooms?

The bilingual residency program provides an accelerated two-year master’s degree in which graduates receive a master’s degree, professional educator’s license, and an endorsement in bilingual education and English as a Second Language (ESL). We have two bilingual residency program tracks: one focused on early childhood education and the other focused on elementary education. Our residents undergo a suite of carefully curated professional development modules that include support from the Office of Language and Cultural Education. Residents receive support in teaching in bilingual and dual-language classrooms while working in specific grade bands. They also receive professional development in cultural competence and social emotional learning.

During the first year, residents are matched with carefully vetted mentors and placed in training sites. We facilitate a matching process where [incoming residents] get to choose who would be the best fit for them to work with. Teacher residents spend a full year in the training site side by side with the mentor teacher to get training and support, guidance, and coaching. During this first year, residents work in a full-time position where they receive a $35K salary with benefits. In the second year, residents are hired as teachers of record in their own classroom, earning a full teacher’s salary, while they work on the bilingual and ESL endorsement.

How many teacher candidates did you serve last year, and do you hope to see the program grow?

Last year we had 11 bilingual elementary residents. This year, we have 21 bilingual elementary residents, and nine early childhood bilingual residents. We recently opened up our recruitment cycle and are hoping to grow. Our recruiting targets are 25 for each of the program tracks for the 2020-2021 cohort. (The overall size of the residency program, which includes special education and STEM teachers, is 90 people this year.)

For the early childhood education cohort, we have to do significant outreach. The interest is there, but there are many systemic barriers for candidates to overcome, including culturally and linguistically limited tests such as the ACT, TAP, and SAT. Recently, the governor provided some reprieve, eliminating these tests as program entry requirements. We’re looking forward to being able to get candidates enrolled with fewer barriers.

Which languages do you currently serve?

We are currently serving Spanish, the most commonly spoken home language in CPS other than English. We’re hoping to expand to the top five most spoken languages in Chicago: Arabic, Urdu, Cantonese, and Polish. In order to train a group of teachers bilingually in one of the other top four languages, it would require a classroom with that language as a main mode of instruction. With the cohort model being a critical part of our residency program, it would be challenging for a resident to be in a program with predominantly Spanish language speakers.

How do you develop program content, and how does this content ensure teacher candidates are better prepared to serve ELL students?

We develop the content, both coursework and professional development, in partnership with our university partner, National Louis University. We oversee the licensure requirements and make sure everyone is getting what they need at the foundational level. Community experiences such as community walks and parent and community engagement events are integrated into the coursework. We also give a lot of consideration to the specific grade-level focus of the cohort (early learners or elementary learners) and build content around that. While both cohorts might share a professional development suite in bilingual education, there is also specific professional development for grades pre-K to 2 and 1 to 6.

For the cultural competency curriculum, we examined research around the benefits of having a cultural grounding when entering communities in CPS. But we’re setting them up to be successful regardless of whether they do or don’t share identities with their students. Research shows that everyone benefits from diverse teachers, and teachers also benefit from serving a diverse population. We also want to make sure teachers have a drive to serve diverse students in CPS, most of whom are black and brown.

These candidates are having an immersive experience before becoming a teacher of record. Teacher candidates see the ins and outs of how schools work and how ELL populations learn prior to their first day of teaching. Our candidates have a lot more information and resources at their fingertips, unlike the average first-day teacher who might just be getting out of an undergraduate teacher preparation program.

What type of teacher candidates do you look for?

For all of our residencies, we’re really looking for an aptitude for teaching, but candidates don’t necessarily need previous experience in classrooms. We want to make sure we’re picking folks with a strong, evident orientation toward serving kids in Chicago. We’re not looking for ready-made teachers, but candidates who are coachable.

We’re also looking for people with Chicago connections. We deeply value those who are CPS graduates, parents, or current CPS employees, including paraprofessionals, special education classroom assistants, security staff, central office staff, or folks who can commit to working in CPS. This program is a four-year commitment (two additional years after the program ends) – our goal is that they stay for the longterm.

What steps do you take to ensure that you recruit for a diverse and inclusive cohort?

We have a pipeline at our fingertips: internal staff and paraprofessionals who have bachelor’s degrees and have been working in schools. That population is wonderfully diverse and have had rich experiences working in Chicago and in CPS schools, specifically. When it comes to recruiting externally, we recruit through social media and outline the supports we offer, including discounted tuition, financial aid, loan forgiveness, paid training experience with benefits, and career stability. For recruitment events, the priority is to be out and present in communities where we see the most need. We like to see candidates who come from and have an opportunity to serve in their district. We also host coffee chats, library chats, career fairs, and community events to make sure we’re reaching a wide variety of people across the city.

How do you support teacher candidates in their completion of the program, particularly those who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds?

We’ve been fortunate to have funding to provide different supports. We offer CPS graduates and parents a scholarship for up to $3,000. We also offer testing vouchers and testing reimbursements to cover the costs of program licensure and exams. In the past, we’ve done test preparation at no cost to candidates, and we hope to do that again this year for content tests. This year, we were fortunate to receive a grant for transportation support. We’re looking forward to additional resources around childcare supports, which we know is important for career changers or established professionals who may have families to care for – we want to make sure they’re able to attend evening courses.

More holistically, we’re making sure candidates are paired with a recruitment and program specialist they can reach out to at any time. This specialist is someone on the residency team dedicated to their program that can help candidates navigate the educational system and structures of CPS as an employee. There’s a bilingual residency program recruitment specialist that prospective applicants can always call on from their initial point of interest in applying to the point of program completion.

What are you most excited about for your bilingual educator residency programs?

I’m really excited about meeting an unmet need for bilingual and ELL students in CPS. One of the reasons the program exists is to fill the critical vacancies we know are there for populations that need it the most. We’re not just building a supply of teachers to meet the demand, but hopefully to exceed the demand so schools can expand their dual-language programs over time.

This post is part of a series on teacher residencies. Read the #ResidentExperts series here.