Nashua to benefit from UNH grant

The announcement last month that the University of New Hampshire had received a $1.8 million federal grant to train and certify Nashua teachers in English to Speakers of Other Languages marks another positive step in the district’s commitment to educating all students – regardless of their native languages.

That wasn’t always the case, at least according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which determined after a review of the district’s English as a Second Language program in 1997 that it was in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Federal officials cited inadequate staffing ratios that led to an inappropriate level of services at some schools, as well as some students being placed in lower-level courses because of their poor English-speaking skills.

It wouldn’t be until 13 years later that the Office of Civil Rights would inform the district that it was once again in compliance and would no longer be subject to federal monitoring.

Now, under the five-year program announced May 22, UNH will establish an on-site program in Nashua with the goal of certifying 80 teachers who work with students whose first language is other than English.

And just based on numbers alone, Nashua would seem to be a perfect fit for this collaborative effort between the DOE’s Office of English Language Acquisition and UNH.

Currently, the Nashua School District provides instruction to children from 80 different countries who speak 53 different languages. (When The Telegraph published a special series on this topic in 2005, the list of languages spoken included Gujarati, Kikuyu, Kiswahili, Tagalog, Telugu and Urdu.)

Based on the Nashua School District’s 2010-11 annual report, 1,044 of the 11,895 students enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12 were considered English Language Learners, or nearly 9 percent of the student body. In 2005, there were 791 such students; in 1979, there were only 38.

Given there are now 20 English Language Learner teachers in the district, that means the student-teacher ratio stands at roughly 52 to 1. If the new program succeeds in certifying another 80, that ratio would drop to a more reasonable 10 to 1.

“As Nashua’s diversity increases, it’s imperative that our teachers have the instructional skills to educate the children in our schools,” Robert Cioppa, coordinator of the city’s English Language Learner program, said in a statement announcing the grant. “As teachers learn more instructional strategies, they will be better able to reach more students in their classes and become highly effective teachers.”

Not only is the program aiming to quadruple the number of certified ESOL teachers in the district, but it’s specifically targeting the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – subjects of great interest to New Hampshire businesses.

As it turns out, Nashua is home to roughly 20 percent of the state’s more than 4,900 English Language Learners, who speak 136 different languages, according to the state Department of Education. Today, the most commonly spoken languages are Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Bosnian, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Maay and Nepali.

So, UNH gets to step outside its Durham campus and partner with the state’s second-largest city. Nashua teachers pick up some critical skills in how to better educate this segment of the population. And students stand to reap the benefits.

All in all, it looks like a win for everyone involved.