Project LEAP (Language Equity and Academic Performance) is a partnership between the College of Education (COE) and the Mat-Su Borough, Anchorage and Juneau school districts that is funded by a $1.5M grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The project’s mission: to train in-service teachers to be leaders in their districts when working with English language learners. The outcome: an 18-credit graduate certificate in teaching ESL for elementary education that supports academic performance while sustaining cultures and language identity.
A cohort of 40 teachers each year, beginning spring semester 2013, will complete COE courses such as culture, language and literacy; policy, law and advocacy; and science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) content. Co-principal investigators Cathy Coulter, Ph.D., associate professor of elementary education, and Irasema Ortega, Ph.D., assistant professor of science education, are projecting 200 graduates over the five-year lifetime of the grant.
“We’re focusing in the beginning on teachers who are currently working with high numbers of ESL students,” says Coulter. “We really want to create teacher leaders and professional learning communities beyond what already exists to a great extent in each district.”
Coulter and Ortega have also been involved in the College of Education’s Chevak Alaska Teacher Initative, a partnership with the Kashunamiut School District that is training a group of their paraprofessionals to become fully qualified elementary education teachers. In writing curriculum with the Chevak cohort, the pair remains focused on Alaska Native English language learners especially.
“She and I are learning so much working with them that it’s really creating for us this new focus of what does culturally sustaining pedagogy really look like,” Coulter says. “And what does it look like in a classroom with children from many different countries and who speak many different languages.
“There’s a lot of literature on this, we understand a lot, but I feel that we’ve really just begun to explore this. Moving from culturally responsive and culturally relevant teaching (that already exists in many Alaska school districts) to culturally sustaining. That is, sustaining the cultural and linguistic identity of the children.”
Since Project LEAP is grant-funded, the certificate will be tuition free and its graduates will be that much closer to their M.Ed. degrees if they choose to go further.