SPRINGDALE When she entered kindergarten at Jones Elementary School in Springdale, Jessica Rodriguez didn’t speak a lot of English.
“Slim to none,” said Rodriguez, who spoke Spanish, the language of her household.
By ninth grade, however, Rodriguez’s English had improved to the point she no longer needed special English as a Second Language instruction in addition to her regular classes.
Now Rodriguez, who graduated from Springdale High School this month, is fluent in both languages.She has applied for a new scholarship designed to attract more Spanish-speaking teachers to the Springdale School District.
A little more than 6,000 students in the district are Hispanic with limited English skills - about 30 percent of the overall enrollment of 19,400.
But not many teachers in Springdale speak Spanish.
A new program aims to change that.
The Bilingual Scholars Initiative hopes to produce 90 teachers who will work to bridge that language gap in the district’s classrooms, said Don Love, Springdale’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at the secondary level.
The collaborative initiative is a five-year effort of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville and the Springdale district.
Focusing mainly on scholarship support for future teachers, the initiative begins with the 2012-13 academic year.
“We need to have more bilingual teachers in our school district,” Love said. “We’ve just got to grow that applicant pool.”
The Walton Family Foundation helped fund the initiative with a $775,000 grant, $615,000 of which will go toward the newly created Northwest Arkansas Bilingual Teacher Scholarship.
The award comes with $1,250 to help defray tuition and fees for Hispanic students planning to enroll or who are currently enrolled full time either at UA or the community college.
There isn’t a specific language tied to the scholarship, but Love said it’s understood that fluency in Spanish is what’s most needed. Only a small percentage of Springdale’s 1,300 teachers are fluent in both Spanish and English, he said.
Rodriguez and two other 2012 Springdale High School graduates are applying for the scholarship, which is being offered through the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, Love said.
To be eligible for the scholarship, students must be a U.S. citizen, legal permanent resident or an eligible non-U.S. citizen; have a minimum 3.0 grade-point average and be majoring in education.
Rodriguez earned a 3.4 GPA at Springdale. She plans to enroll at Northwest Arkansas Community College, with a long-term goal of earning a teaching degree at UA then returning to Springdale as an elementary school teacher.
“I want to make a difference in students’ lives,” she said.
Diana Johnson, executive director of high school relations at the community college, said she hopes the new scholarship will lead to more students like Rodriguez in the campus’ associate-degree teaching program.
“The whole intent is to help Springdale schools grow their own [bilingual] teachers,” Johnson said. “We’re investing in our own community. It’s just a wonderful opportunity all the way around.”
The Hispanic Scholarship Fund bills itself as the nation’s leading Hispanic higher education fund, awarding more than $360 million in scholarships since its founding in 1975.
The application deadline is June 15 and more information is available at the Hispanic Scholarship Fund website, hsf.net.
The initiative’s goal is to generate bilingual teachers, not to promote bilingual instruction, which is prohibited by state law, Love said.
Arkansas Code Annotated 6-16-104 states “the basic language of instruction in the public school branches in all the schools of the state, public and private, shall be the English language only.”
The law, which carries a fine of up to $25 for each offense, was passed in 1931 and has been amended throughout the years.
The law doesn’t preclude a teacher from using a non-English word occasionally or having a short one-on-one conversation with a student in his native tongue, Love said.
Last year, Springdale hired its first home-grown teacher who had started out learning English as a pupil.
Sabrina Conde taught first grade at Lee Elementary School in 2011-12, 16 years after being placed in the English as a Second Language Program as a kindergartner at Tyson Elementary.
Conde, who is bilingual, teaches at a school where more than 60 percent of the pupils are learning English.
Another bilingual teacher in Springdale, Andrea McKenna, won a 2011 Milken Educator Award, which came with a prize of $25,000. McKenna was nominated for the prize by her principal at Kelly Middle School, Sara Ford, who said 51 percent of the school’s students are English-language learners.
There are many benefits to having a bilingual teacher in a classroom, especially when it comes to conveying an idea or concept that is hard to translate, Ford said.
Diana Gonzales Worthen agrees. She’s served as the director of Project Teach Them All, a program at UA’s College of Education and Health Professions that prepares Springdale teachers to work with students from different cultural backgrounds.
The program’s name is changing to Project RISE - Reaching and Increasing Student Excellence - and expanding to six other districts at the beginning of July.
“When a teacher can transcend cultural and language barriers, they can reach the students more quickly,” Worthen said. “If you do speak the language and you understand the cultural background, you can cut to the chase and help that student quickly and efficiently.”