A Bilingual Aide Explains the Value of Representation for English Learners

Elizabeth Alonzo moved to Russellville, Ala. when she was in the 7th grade. She currently works as an English-learner aide at West Elementary primarily in 2nd grade classrooms. She is one of 10 new aides the Russellville city schools district hired to support the growing population of English learners. But the funding for these positions will run out in May 2024, since they are part of the district’s federal pandemic relief spending.

A former English learner herself, Alonzo shares details of her work, the courses she’s taking to become a full-fledged teacher, and why support for English learners matters.

I heard from a translator at the middle school that there was a job opening. I was on maternity leave so I wasn’t working at the time. So I decided to go and ask at the board of education and see what it was about. And they told me that it was a position for one of the elementary schools as an [English-learner] aide. It sounded like it was something that I would be interested in. So I went ahead and took that opportunity.

I greet students, and in the classroom, I usually work with two 2nd grade teachers, and I work with their [English-learner] students. I pull them out into small groups and I either translate the lesson that the teacher is doing with the whole group, or I ask them if they have any questions. I don’t always translate everything, because many times they catch on, but whenever there are times that I feel like they would understand it better in Spanish, I translate for them, and then we speak about it in English and Spanish. Most of the time, I’m doing small groups where I pull the students and we work in a smaller group together.

When I was in elementary school, specifically kindergarten, I didn’t know any English. So I remember it was very hard for me, just trying to communicate with my teachers, and even my classmates. And so I think about myself, whenever I wasn’t able to speak to anybody, and I wanted to speak to somebody, and I didn’t have somebody to speak to.

I’ve always thought about how great it would be for me to be there for even if it was just one student, where I could communicate with them, and they could communicate with me because I knew their language. So that is one of the reasons why I want to do this. I picture myself in a classroom with bilingual students, but not only bilingual students, just a diverse classroom, and I just picture myself there, helping my students feel more comfortable around me, and being able to speak to me, even if they don’t speak English.

The Russellville City School District has worked to meet the needs of an influx of Hispanic students over the last few years through a number of methods, including hiring nearly a dozen new bilingual aides. Elizabeth Alonzo, pictured here during a class at West Elementary in Russellville, Ala., on Dec. 9, 2022, is one of the bilingual aides.

Whenever I went to ask at the board about the job position, I actually spoke to Dr. [Heath] Grimes, the superintendent. And he told me, ‘Hey, we also have this program with Reach University, and you can get your bachelor’s degree while working.’ And so I told him that I would apply. I did all of the steps. I got accepted. And usually two days a week, this semester, I have classes. I start at 7:30 p.m. and finish at 9:45 p.m. And Wednesdays, I have a math class from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

[Editor’s Note: Reach University partners with school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, California, and Louisiana to offer online bachelor’s degree programs, helping paraprofessionals become teachers while still working in a school.]

I’m only paying $75 a month, which is not bad at all because if I went to any other university to try to get my bachelor’s degree, it would be a lot more money. I knew that I wanted to go into education when I graduated high school, but I didn’t go in that direction. I decided to go into business management. But when I started taking business classes in college, I decided I didn’t like that. So I just got my associate degree. Going into education was always in the back of my mind. So when this job opportunity came up, and then this Reach University opportunity came up, I thought it was a great idea for me to take it.

It’s always in the back of my mind, like, come May, this might be like the end, [the district] might have to let me go or something. But I try to maintain a positive attitude. And I mean, if they do have to let me go, my thought is that I will just, with the experience that I have, I feel like I could go to another school district and apply for an EL position. My desire is to keep going and not give up.

I think we’ve helped a lot, and it shows in the data. If they let go of most of us with that, if that would impact [student achievement] negatively, I can’t say that for sure. But I know that our students, I know that they need us there, and we make a lot of them more comfortable by being there. So I’m just trying to stay hopeful.

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This article originally appeared in www.edweek.org

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