Students can help bridge the education gap of English Learner Students

David Dam

Austin welcomed students from more than 70 countries this semester to UT, strengthening the city’s growing trend of diversity. However, Austin’s growth has created inadequacies in public education for certain students. With central Texas schools struggling to find bilingual teachers, there are challenges to accommodate the needs of English as a Second Language (ESL) programs and bilingual students.

Last year, 32 percent of the Austin Independent School District’s 85,000 students spoke languages other than English at home, making their development of the language harder at an early age.

Education associate professor Rebecca Callahan said she believes that ESL and bilingual students face additional problems other than developing proficiency in both English and content areas.

“Compared to more English-proficient peers, [ESL students] attend less-resourced schools, are more likely to be taught by un- or under-certified teachers, are more likely to be economically disadvantaged and have parents who are less familiar with the structure and bureaucracy of the U.S. school system,” Callahan said in an email.

Two-thirds of ESL students come from low-income families, and their life outside of school has a huge impact on their learning. Callahan adds that these problems can accumulate.

“When basic needs — food, shelter, health care — are not adequately met, children’s ability to learn suffers,” Callahan said. “When children cannot learn to their full potential, we limit the ability of our society to grow and prosper to its full potential.”

While these problems will not be solved overnight, options exist to aid ESL students. Organizations on campus such as Students Expanding Austin Literacy (SEAL) aim to help struggling bilingual kids read with the help of a college student mentor. Roger Lam, history sophomore and community director of SEAL, said the kids valued having informal teaching buddies.

“Those that are really struggling with literacy [sometimes] just don’t have the resources and human support to excel,” Lam said. “That’s where I think college students should step in. It only makes sense for us to fill the educational gaps that hinder these students from reaching their full potential.”

Establishing a peer-mentor system would provide resources and have profound impacts, such as devote attention to a student’s needs and improved academic standing. As long as schools remain underfunded and these students’ social backgrounds are ignored, bilingual students and students who lack English proficiency will be in a school system that doesn’t cater to them. However, for the time being, college students can be the solution.

Dam is a linguistics freshman from Austin. Follow Dam on Twitter @daviddamwrite.