Project REACH graduates will support bilingual students in Arkansas classrooms this fall

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Project REACH participant Sandra Chacon teaches first-grade students at Westwood Elementary in Springdale.

In the 1990s, Sandra Chacon’s older brother was one of the few students in the Springdale School District who spoke only Spanish.

“My mother moved to the United States in her early twenties and after years of saving was able to bring my brother here when he was 13,” she said. “Being an English learner in the 90s was so difficult that my mother decided she would raise me and my older sister in an English-only home to try and save us from the struggles my brother endured.”

By the time she reached kindergarten, Chacon could speak English and Spanish interchangeably. She was regularly asked to translate for teachers and peers, and her dream of becoming a teacher was born.

“Helping students gave me purpose and brought me joy,” she said.

Chacon took a giant step towards her dream last month when she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Alberta. She was one of 18 bilingual students to graduate through Project REACH, a federal scholarship program of the U of A’s College of Education and Health Professions. REACH stands for Retooling Educators and Paraprofessionals to ACHieve Teacher Credentialing.

The REACH grant helped Chacon and his fellow graduates achieve their goal of becoming a teacher without the financial burden. The US Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition grant paid for their tuition, fees, and textbooks.

Hailing from Mexico, El Salvador, Venezuela, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Cambodia, they have all participated in the program’s “Grow Your Own” initiative while working as paraprofessionals in the Springdale School District. The mission of the initiative is to address the disparity in teacher-student diversity.

“Tears of joy rolled down my cheeks as our REACH students walked across the stage to receive their diplomas,” said Diana Gonzales Worthen, Ph.D., REACH Project Director and Principal Investigator of the U.S. Department of Health grant. ‘Education. “Bilingual/bicultural paraprofessionals like Sandra are passionate about serving students and families, especially those who are new to the country and are learning English.”

Worthen said paraprofessionals are essential workers in school systems because they connect language to academic content and serve as liaisons between parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators. “Many have a desire to become teachers if given the opportunity,” she said.

Worthen said REACH builds on the bilingual/bicultural strengths of paraprofessionals and provides a new avenue for evening and online classes while partnering with Northwest Arkansas Community College and the Springdale School District.

The program has also received assistance from Christine Smart, a full-time educational consultant/mentor who specializes in English as a second language. “His involvement was critical because 100% of these students were first-generation students, 94% former English learners and 81% working parents,” Worthen said. “As our schools become increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse, so too must our teachers, counsellors, administrators and media specialists. We have the talent and the partnerships here, in our own backyard, to develop your own.”

Smart was also thrilled to see these 18 students achieve their goal of becoming certified teachers.

“We witnessed the struggles they had and the sacrifices they made working and attending night classes, and yet despite the odds they excelled in their classes and finished with a cohort GPA 3.74,” she said. “They dared to dream and, with support, were able to turn those dreams into reality. They are our bilingual/bicultural superstars.”

In addition to helping paraprofessionals obtain their teacher’s license, Project REACH also helps certified K-6 teachers obtain ESL (English as a Second Language) approval. Participants also have the option of earning a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) graduate certificate.

Chacon started taking a few teacher training courses at the college level right after high school. She took a break when her youngest son was diagnosed with autism. She had her hands full as a mother and support worker at Jones Elementary in Springdale. At Jones, she took the opportunity to translate at parent-teacher conferences and in the classroom, helping teachers.

“The more I worked with children, the more I wanted to make school a safe place for everyone,” she said. “Working with English learners is about more than just working with the students. It’s also about working with their families. Being the bridge over the language barrier at work has shown me how much it It’s important that I become a teacher.”

Even when helping students or families who speak a language other than Spanish, Chacon said she was still able to relate.

“I understand their struggle and how it can affect how a person or a student feels about education,” she said. “I want to be the teacher I and many others needed to grow and my classroom to be a space where student differences are celebrated and presented as the gifts they are.”

While progressing through her bachelor’s degree, Chacon taught at Westwood Elementary in Springdale, helping students – all learning English – who had reading problems. Everyone had different needs.

“By working closely with my mentor teacher and professors, I was able to work to bridge these gaps by bringing together small groups of children and individualizing their lessons,” she said.

Chacon is currently working in the Springdale School District’s summer school program to gain more experience. This fall, she will be teaching second grade at Bayyari Elementary. She’s thrilled to be hired by “the district that raised me.”

Chacon and the other 17 REACH graduates were recognized at a meeting of the Springdale School District Board of Trustees. Other graduates include Soklina Ross, Iveth Chacon (Sandra’s sister-in-law), Karina Lemus, Mariana Thiam, Ana Bolena Barragan and Fernando Barragan (mother and son), Kimberly Muller, Maria Angelica Alcala, Ziomara Velasquez, Victor Meza, Karen Gomez, Stephanie Espino Rico, Lila Hernandez, Annabel Hernandez, Dixie Lopez, Teresa Martinez and Rose Diaz.

So far, the REACH project has served 38 in-service teachers. Thirteen other bilingual/bicultural paraprofessionals are enrolled in the “Grow Your Own” program. They will earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and become certified teachers with an ESL endorsement.

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