Missouri’s population has a significant number of people from other countries, including many students who are learning in the public school system. Cammy Goucher, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Curriculum Director for English Language Development and World Languages, said Missouri has roughly 40,000 students whose primary language is not English but they are learning English.

She said out of 554 districts and charter schools, 134 have a teacher who specializes in educating English language learners (ELL). That’s about 25% of Missouri school districts with an ELL teacher.

“Some of those have only one teacher,” Goucher told Missourinet. “And then some of our larger areas have up to 90. I know we have, in many of our rural districts, schools who have 10 to 20 English learners and do not have a designated teacher that works with them.”

According to Goucher, the Missouri districts with the most ELL students include Springfield, Carthage, Monett, St. Louis, and Kansas City. Not all Missouri K-12 public school districts and charter schools have English language learners, but Goucher said that is expected to change in the near future.

To give you an idea on the teacher to student ratio, Goucher said the teachers are overburdened.

“In Missouri, we have about 870 English language development teachers serving those almost 40,000 students. Most of those teachers are in the larger districts,” she said.

If they do not have the appropriate teacher to educate these students, then how do the children learn?

“We like to work with those districts to first have them dedicate a person or a couple of people who will spend time working with the students. In some districts I’ve been to, that is a reading specialist, and a few districts is the school counselors,” Goucher said.

The state has five specialists who also help school employees with ways to teach these students who are working to become fluent in English. Does Missouri have enough specialists to serve the entire state?

“It is a tough job to serve everyone that we need to serve,” she said. “We would love to have more, and at one time we did have more. But because of budgetary reasons, we were cut, I believe, it was from nine down to five. There are other states, though, that don’t have anyone helping the person in my position. So, I’m thankful for the five I have.”

Regardless of whether Missouri’s school districts and charter schools have these specialized teachers, Goucher said every district should have a plan in place to be prepared to work with English language learners. If a district or charter school has at least 20 English language learners in their district or charter school, they are supposed to start looking for a full-time or part-time ELL teacher. Or someone within the district can be trained to become certified to teach these students.

Years ago, schools placed English language learners in special education courses. Goucher said that’s no longer happening.

“These students do not have a disability,” she said. “They have a difference. We have had instances where students are actually gifted or very well educated in their home language. They just don’t have English yet. So, it’s our job to kind of fill that gap.”

For ELL students who have been in the United States for less than one year, they are exempt from taking the English Language Arts portion of Missouri’s standardized MAP tests. When they take the assessment, or any end-of-course tests, the students can have a translator if one is available. They are also required to take an annual federally-mandated state assessment to measure their proficiency in English.

Goucher said Missouri is not alone in the short supply of English language development teachers.

“It’s pretty consistent everywhere,” says Goucher. “Everyone is kind of filling this need at this time- a lack of teachers that are certified to teach the students and an increasing number of students.”

Could artificial intelligence help to fill the gap in the ELL teacher shortage?

“That is something that is really taking off with English language learners,” she said. “One of the big reasons is that we can translate things into so many languages. And we can also create materials for our students. It’s only as good, though, as the questions that you provide. So, the teacher has to have the knowledge to create these tools, but I can see them as being a very good resource in the future.”

Goucher said the federal government has provided English language development teachers with a few workshops to ease them into using some of the artificial intelligence tools.

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