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UW Professor’s ESL Research Helps English Language Learners Navigate Public Schools

November 3, 2021
people seated at tables for an event
Wyoming English as a second language (ESL) families attend the recent Wyoming ESL Parent Institute in Gillette to gain advice and resources to help them support their children as they navigate the public education system. (UW Photo)

More than 200 people attended the recent Wyoming ESL Parent Institute, which served as a resource for English as a second language (ESL) students and their parents, in addition to educators and policymakers who want to support ESL families in their school districts.

The inaugural Wyoming ESL Parent Institute, held at Gillette College, was an outcome of research conducted by Jenna Shim, an associate dean and professor in the University of Wyoming’s College of Education.

Shim’s research was funded by the Everett D. and Elizabeth M. Lantz Distinguished Professorship in Education, which she was awarded in 2018. The award, endowed by the Lantz family, was established to attract and retain outstanding scholars to UW and provides salary or discretionary funding to enhance the recipient’s research and teaching programs for two years.

As part of her work, Shim interviewed more than 100 ESL parents in Wyoming.

“Through my research, I learned these families value education and want to help their children succeed in school but are often unsure how to navigate the American public school system,” she says. “I also learned that ESL students, many of whom live in impoverished conditions, can have better success in school when their family and school collaborate on their behalf.”

With these findings, Shim reached out to Campbell County School District 1 principals Bertine Bahige and Keri Shannon to collaborate on an event that would connect ESL families to the school district and resources available to them. The Gillette district’s high English learner population and established dual language immersion (DLI) programs made the principals ideal partners to help plan and deliver the first Wyoming ESL Parent Institute.

“Events like the Wyoming ESL Parent Institute are the result of sustained educational partnerships between Wyoming public school districts and UW’s College of Education,” Shim says. “These collaborations can provide research-based changes for P-12 education in our state and are a powerful means of improving student achievement and cultivating college-going cultures.”

The institute was held on a Saturday in October to allow working parents to attend. Translators were present to ensure the information was received by all, and resources were provided to ensure parents with young children could attend. Every aspect of the event was developed with the unique needs of ESL families in mind.

A breakfast and community resource fair preceded opening remarks from Shim; Scott Thomas, the John P. “Jack” Ellbogen Dean of the UW College of Education; Mary Ellbogen Garland, president of the John P. Ellbogen Foundation; Jillian Balow, Wyoming superintendent of public instruction; state Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette; and Kirby Eisenhauer, deputy superintendent of Campbell County School District 1.

Several influential people from Wyoming also were in attendance to support the event, including David Fall, a UW trustee from Gillette; Jessica Binning, a division supervisor in the Wyoming Department of Education; Antoinette Hallam, a consultant for the Wyoming Department of Education; and Brendan O’Connor, assistant director of Wyoming’s Professional Teaching Standards Board.

Participants in the institute were asked to attend four informational sessions and were eligible to receive gift bags upon completion that included bilingual dictionaries and other resources. Sessions included presentations on a variety of topics to help ESL families support their students. Attendees selected the sessions they wanted to attend and learned about the benefits of being bilingual; how to use district technology; extracurricular programs; resources available to them in the school district; how to help their students with homework; and resources that lead to college and other postsecondary options.

“Educators need to make authentic efforts to better engage with these families and create support systems that are specifically designed to help the families of ESL students become active partners in their children’s schooling,” Shim says. “Teachers and administrators who attended the institute from across the state hope to use the Wyoming ESL Parent Institute as a template to host similar events that increase parental involvement in their districts.”

The Wyoming ESL Parent Institute was hosted by the UW College of Education/UW Trustees Education Initiative in partnership with Campbell County School District 1 and GEAR UP Wyoming in Gillette. The Everett D. and Elizabeth M. Lantz Distinguished Professorship in Education funded the event.

View photos from the institute and a meet-and-greet event for Thomas held the evening before as part of the Wyoming ESL Parent Institute.

Shim will partner with Campbell County School District 1 to host the fifth annual Wyoming ESL/DLI Conference April 29-30 in Gillette. Educators interested in attending can join this email list.

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