Public schools’ lack of cultural and linguistic responsiveness to Somali families is leading many of them to change schools, move to charter schools, relocate to a different area of the United States, or return to Somalia. To mitigate this growing problem, schools have been using cultural mediators to help create a bridge of communication and hiring teachers of color for a better representation of diversity in schools.
Keywords: Somali culture, education, academic barriers

When I was in middle school, I had a hard time getting to know my classmates, especially my Somali peers. The average person might attribute this to my quiet demeanor; however, the real reason had nothing to do with being introverted. In fact, I was very isolated because I was often the only non-White student in my classes. Occasionally, other Somali-American students would appear, but then many of them would soon transfer to a different school or even move back to Somalia in some cases. This made it difficult for me to form relationships with them before they left. Ultimately, being the only Somali-American in the school affected my engagement in learning.

My experience of cultural and linguistic isolation in schools is the reality for many Somali students in U.S. public schools (Koch, 2007). Schools often do not address Somali students’ isolation, nor do they actively support their language and culture (Birman et al., 2001, as cited in Koch, 2007). Due to reasons such as these, many Somali parents move their children to different schools in hopes of finding the right fit. The constant relocation of Somali families could be one of the reasons it is difficult for Somali youth to complete their high school education. In Minnesota, 34% of Somali-Americans aged 25-64 do not have a high school diploma, compared to only 3% of the White population in Minnesota (Johnson, 2018). When Somali students come to a U.S. public school after emigrating from Somalia, they need relevant education that does not conflict with their language, culture, and religion. As a Somali-American high school student myself, I would like to share my perspectives on why many Somali families are not content with their children’s education and how public schools can better support their students’ educational journey.

Somali parents’ expectations and motivations for their children’s education

To fully understand Somali students’ struggle for quality education, it is important to understand why Somali families have resettled in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Obtaining a quality education in Somalia itself has been very difficult in the aftermath of the Somali Civil War. Nonetheless, before the start of the war, most Somalis lived in rural areas and adhered to the teachings of Islam. The society was mainly democratic and there were various clans that made up the country’s population. Both men and women had roles in the community that had equal importance. However, the civil war affected daily life in many aspects, including Somali public education. For the promise of safety and opportunity, many families emigrated from Somalia and looked for better lives free of conflict (Putman & Noor, 1993, as cited in Koch, 2007, p. 2). Furthermore, in the 1980s (pre-civil war), Islamic religious schools were the only type of schooling available to the public in Mogadishu (Iftin & Alexander, 2018). The civil war continues today and has lowered the opportunities for education available to the Somali public. Of course, it is important to note that many refugees do manage to obtain excellent educations in some private schools in Somalia, as well as in surrounding countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.

Along with these historical reasons, until immigration to the U.S., Somali parents are also used to schools in Somalia and neighboring countries reflecting their culture, including Islamic holidays, studies, and values, along with academic subjects. Because most Somalis share a similar culture and religion, numerous Somali families are surprised by the Christian-centered community dynamic in their new homes. In my experience, school culture in the U.S. unconsciously adopts Christian values, customs, and holidays. The new ideas and different curriculum in these American and European areas make Somali parents feel hesitant and unqualified to get involved with their children’s education. In order to maintain their cultural identity, Somali families move to areas with a high Somali population and, if all else fails, relocate to Somalia or to the Middle East.

Choices of Somali families

The results of cultural assimilation

Non-Somali people often criticize and discriminate against Somalis due to factors such as their culture, religion, language, and race (Koch, 2007). Thus, in an attempt to fit in, some Somalis try to use Black culture and hip-hop as a source of comfort (Bigelow, 2008). It is apparent that Somalis are working hard to adapt to their social surroundings and are putting in numerous efforts to build relationships with their peers.

However, in the process of cultural assimilation, Somalis can lose a part of their cultural identity as well. Moreover, this aspect of coping can be seen in a negative light by the public. They, along with their Black classmates, experience discrimination within the schooling system due to assumptions made about their race, culture, ethnicity, and immigration status. These students feel that they have fewer opportunities to gain jobs and attend college due to the blatant prejudice that exists (Bigelow, 2008). Ignorant assumptions are a major shadow over their academic achievements and progress (Maira & Soep, 2013). The false ideas created about Somalis are then reflected onto the entire Somali population. In turn, it should be noted that Somalis have also found ways to use Black culture in a positive light. While Somali parents still disapprove, Somali youth draw on Black vernacular and music as ways to build their identities (Maira & Soep, 2013). Through this process, Somalis are better able to express themselves linguistically and can communicate with their teachers and peers on another level (Maira & Soep, 2013). Therefore, Somalis can learn more about the English language by looking toward Black culture and becoming confident in their linguistic skills. They use aspects of this culture to bring a sense of belonging, advocate for their future through verbal speech, relieve stress by listening to Black music, and make friends within the Black community.

Charter schools

Undoubtedly, Somalis have the power to make a variety of decisions to overcome any obstacles that might form in their path. If moving away and adopting local culture does not allow Somali children to overcome their educational hardships, many Somali parents transfer their students from public schools to charter schools. From what I have witnessed, public schools tend to make Somali students feel restricted in their cultural and religious practices, and the traditional system makes it hard for Somali parents to advocate for their child’s education. Without a firm grasp on English, Somali families struggle to communicate what kind of support their child needs academically. Even though public schools have more college preparation and educational resources, I do not believe that public schools have the proper cultural and linguistic support to meet the needs of Somali students. On the other hand, I have found that charter schools are more creative and unconventional in their school structure. Somali families feel a greater sense of community and feel that they can practice their culture more freely. In fact, when deciding what educational institution to send their children to, “one out of three Somali families choose Charter” (Johnson, 2018, p. 20). In addition, there are charter school groups that are trying to help minority students get into the best colleges despite their difficult circumstances. Factors such as parents with limited English, financial aid, and graduation rates are addressed by these charter school teams. List of colleges are created for each student based on compatibility (Blume, 2019). With these support programs put into place, Somali students feel more comfortable after leaving their charter schools and heading toward college.

Efforts by public schools

Much like charter schools, public schools have also developed methods to help Somali students feel welcome in their buildings. To accommodate a wide variety of immigrant students, there have been many different classroom models made to support English learners. There are pull-out classes, English learning periods, co-teaching, and many more strategies being implemented in the hope of furthering English development among students. However, students have often noted feeling a negative stigma when being separated from their classmates in pull-out instruction (Johnson, 2018). Moreover, the purpose of English Language Learner (ELL) classrooms is not properly communicated to families and makes most Somali parents feel that their child will not be served well by such programs. There is often a language barrier between Somali families and schools that creates a sense of distrust and unease when trying to share resources for Somali youth. For the purpose of increasing inclusion, some schools are trying to use more of the Somali language as a resource to make students feel more connected to academic content. Research tells us that bilingual immersion aids in retaining grammar and vocabulary in both languages (Johnson, 2018). Along with that, Somali students find it important to be able to read and write in their native language since it further connects them to their cultural identity. The use of books and other forms of literature can help promote native language development along with English proficiency (Johnson, 2018). In Somalia, most students learn how to speak Arabic along with their other subjects. Arabic is the foundation for the Islamic holy text, the Qur’an, and is also used as an international common language for Somalis. The teachings of this language along with Somali promotes bilingual education and helps students attach a personal connection to their studies (A. Sabrie, personal communication, November 11, 2020). However, public schools usually do not have the funding they need nor knowledge about how they can properly adapt their classrooms to create these vital connections for Somali students.

Innovative school initiatives

As mentioned earlier, U.S. public schools have noticed that their practices for teaching Somali students through ELL classroom models have been less effective than they had hoped. School administrators have also begun to feel how ill-equipped they are to serve Somali students and teachers since they speak different languages, adhere to different religions, and have a different culture from each other. Their differences can cause misunderstanding and frustration for both parties. In an attempt to find mutual ground, schools are trying to hire more people of color as teachers and trying to encourage minority students to become teachers (Thomas, 2016). The gap between Somali students and their teachers must be lessened through the connection and understanding of language and culture. Somali students find it comforting to be able to converse with their teachers in their native language and feel reassured that their teachers understand the aspects of their cultural norms (Koch, 2007). Teachers need to use the tools of language and culture to help their students feel like they have an important place in the learning environment.

There are many promising examples of schools narrowing the gap between staff and Somalis students in South Central Minnesota. In particular, the ISD 77 school district has made great progress regarding their strong connection with Somali students and their families. School staff have provided support to families by connecting them to resources, such as school supplies and study materials. As of now, schools in the ISD 77 district are coming up with different approaches on how they can increase the representation of people of color in the teaching field. In fact, ISD 77 schools are reaching out to minority students as young as thirteen years old to teach them more about the requirements for becoming a teacher. This developed pathway supports students of color to achieve their dreams of being a teacher in the future. Moreover, there is also a program called “Grow Your Own” that helps pay for the education of students of color through district funds so that they can hope to become a future teacher (A. Sabrie, personal communication, November 11, 2020). All of this effort toward building up diversity will create a brighter future for generations to come. The current level of representation in the teacher population leaves room for unconscious bias toward students of color. Once this bias has been eradicated, the public school system will be a safe haven for all its diverse students (Johnson, 2018).

Following these efforts to support greater Somali student academic achievement, U.S. public school educators and administrators are currently trying to learn about Somali history and culture in order to better understand their students. For a deeper connection, schools can work with leaders in the Somali community to help distribute resources to Somali families. There is a greater importance being placed on learning about Somali trauma from the civil war and how Somali (and the Somali people’s) culture has been the foundation of overcoming their problems. The training of culturally-sensitive guidance counselors can be used to help students overcome the wounds of their past. Also, hiring cultural brokers and liaisons can help facilitate a bridge of communication between teachers and Somali parents (Birman et al., 2001, as cited in Koch, 2007).


In conclusion, the growing issue of U.S. public schools’ lack of knowledge about Somali culture has made Somali families look towards a plethora of alternative options. For Somalis, the most important aspect of education is culturally relevant pedagogy. The current broken connection between teachers and Somali parents has generated frustration and confusion that leads to students leaving public schools for another choice. It has been found that Somali families would rather move to another area, attend a charter school, or even relocate back to Somalia in order to protect their cultural and linguistic identity (Thomas, 2016). In response, schools have begun to shift from pull-out ELL classroom models and are instead putting a focus on utilizing Somali culture and language as part of the curriculum. The hiring of more minority teachers will continue to grow the teacher workforce into one that is understanding and able to connect with Somali youth. These trends are especially important for both school districts and Somalis alike. School staff can look to these emerging solutions as examples of how they can further develop their own schools. On top of that, these ideas can be adapted for other minority groups that are also seeking a more appropriate education. Somali parents can also look at the recommendations of members of the Somali community and advise each other on culturally relevant education choices. As they learn of the new steps put into place by schools, Somali families might decide that working with the school administrators is the best option in the end. I hope that by listening to the voices of Somali-American parents as well as students like myself, school districts will be able to work with Somali families to keep Somali students in their schools through new programs and specialized staff.


Bigelow, M. (2008). Somali adolescents’ negotiation of religious and racial bias in and out of school. Theory Into Practice, 47(1), 27-34. 

Blume, H. (2019). Getting into college is hard. A degree? Harder: Charter-school group creates list to match minority students and schools for best fit. Los Angeles Times. Accessed 3 November, 2021 at 

Iftin, A. N., & Alexander, M. (2018). Call me American: A memoir. Vintage.

Johnson, A. (2018). Somali student achievement in Minnesota: A report on the largest East   African community in Minnesota. Minnesota Education Equity Partnership and Augsburg University. Accessed 3 November 2021 at 

Koch, J. M. (2007). How schools can best support Somali students and their families. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 9(1). 

Maira, S., & Soep, E. (2013). Youthscapes: The popular, the national, the global. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Thomas, P. (2016). Norwegian-Somali parents who send their children to schools in Somalia. Cogent Education, 3(1).



The purpose of this study is to examine how elements of systemic infrastructure for multilingual success (SIMS) contributed to English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers’ ability to engage in language instruction during emergency remote teaching and learning (ERTL) in the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic when schools were transitioning to distance learning. Focused on the Great Lakes region, we utilized surveys and interviews to learn about the roles and responsibilities of ESL teachers during this critical transition. Findings illuminate the generative effects of existing SIMS such as collaboration and co-teaching, ESL leadership, and technology as well as the negative approaches to school infrastructure such as combined teacher/coordinator roles and at-will educator employment. Implications for systemic school reform for multilingual learner equity are discussed.
Keywords: English learners, COVID-19, Instruction, service, infrastructure, multilingual, remote

In 1981, the Castañeda v. Pickard case established a three-part framework to evaluate the efficacy of school district English as a Second Language (ESL) service programs. Thirty years later, the expectations specified in that case have been put to the ultimate test: a global pandemic. With almost five million students categorized as English Learners nation-wide (Mitchell, 2020) and an education system experiencing strain like never before, this article will illuminate how well our schools were able to adhere to the stipulations of Castañeda v. Pickard during emergency remote teaching and learning (ERTL).

The focus of the present study is on systemic infrastructure for multilingual success (SIMS) in the Great Lakes Region of the U.S., including Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Indiana. While these states have similar profiles when it comes to immigrant and refugee populations (U.S. Department of Education, n.d.), they have vastly different structures and policies in place when it comes to ESL education. Given these conditions, the research question guiding this analysis is: Which elements of SIMS afforded the least disrupted language learning experience during ERTL?

At the time of data collection, Minnesota had the most robust SIMS of the three states with the most comprehensive multilingual learner (MLL) legislation in the nation—The Minnesota Learning English for Academic Proficiency and Success [LEAPS] Act, 2014—rigorous teacher licensing requirements consisting of a stand-alone license of approximately 30 credit hours and mostly at the graduate level (M. Sandler, personal communication, September 2, 2021), and one of the largest state ESL teacher professional organizations in the nation, MinneTESOL (an affiliate of TESOL International Association). In addition, one of the researchers conducting this study, Michelle Benegas, is the principal investigator on a National Professional Development grant from the U.S. Department of Education called The English Learners in the Mainstream (ELM) Project. The ELM Project has prepared over 400 licensed ESL teachers across the state to serve as teacher leaders who provide professional development and coach their general education colleagues on promising practices for MLLs. In partnership with public districts, public charters, and private schools in urban, suburban, and rural communities, the ELM Project has increased the collective preparation of general educators across the state to better serve MLLs as well as the capacity of ESL teachers to serve as site-based instructional leaders. This manuscript will focus on data collected from Minnesota participants of the larger study to highlight how a state with strong SIMS carried out the expectations of historic supreme court cases and the Minnesota state LEAPS Act (2014).


The term “ESL teacher” is used throughout this article, as this reflects Minnesota state licensure requirements. While the state continues to use the term “English learner” or “EL” to refer to students acquiring English, we have opted to refer to these students as “multilingual learners” or “MLLs” to validate and celebrate the assets they bring to the classroom. “Instruction” refers to language and/or literacy support that facilitates access to academic content. “Service” refers to any non-instructional support that facilitates daily living or access to instruction.

Literature review and background

Building SIMS

U.S. MLL education policy is sparse and sporadically adhered to. However, one doesn’t need to look far to find an alternative. U.S. special education policy, for example, garners bipartisan support, statutorily limits teacher caseloads, specifies student contact hours as well as service models, and requires a legally binding contract that is required to be re-evaluated annually. McGill (2000) highlights the ways in which ESL programs are positioned as subordinate in school curriculum and draws parallels to the ways in which immigrants are marginalized in society. Additionally, there is research to support the claim that such marginalization of MLLs also manifests as marginalization of ESL teachers (Arkoudis, 2006; Davison, 2006; McClure & Cahnmann-Taylor, 2010). Nation-wide, the trend has been for ESL teachers to be positioned as reading specialists, classroom assistants, and interventionists (Harper et al., 2008). 

Given the impact of systemic racism on MLLs and the resulting diminished perception of ESL teachers, building effective school infrastructure is a significant challenge (Spillane et al., 2011). School infrastructure refers to “the resources that support school leaders and teachers in providing high-quality instruction” (Hopkins et al., 2015). Developed by the researcher for this investigation, the heuristic guiding analysis in this article is SIMS. The elements of SIMS are the following:

  1. Informed: ESL teachers have robust preparation; general education teachers and support staff have continuous professional development on promising practices for MLLs; and MLL leaders have ESL teacher credentials in addition to years of experience in the classroom.
  2. Proactive: Support systems are in place prior to a schooling disruption.
  3. Collaborative: Responsibility for MLLs’ success is shared across district/school sectors (social work, information technology, nurse, nutrition services, general education teachers, ESL teachers, etc.).
  4. Distributed: Decision-making and leadership for MLLs are shared by a variety of professionals with MLL expertise.
  5. Responsive: Support systems for MLLs are based on a continuous cycle of improvement and staff are provided ongoing professional development to respond to changing needs.

Building adequate and appropriate SIMS is particularly challenging in communities with rapidly changing student populations. Minnesota has more refugees per capita than any other state (Shaw, 2018), most of whom have been relocated in the last thirty years. This rapid demographic shift necessitated strong enough SIMS to withstand strain on the education system to avert a negative impact on MLLs during ERTL.

ERTL and the COVID-19 pandemic

ERTL is the response to a disruption in the predominant educational model. This disruption could be the result of political, economic, social, or environmental instability (Davies & Bentrovato, 2011; Milman, 2020). ERTL is distinct from typical online teaching and learning, in which school infrastructure is designed for a virtual format ahead of time and not during a time of crisis (Affouneh et al., 2020; Hodges et al., 2020; Milman, 2020).

​​In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the months of March, April, May, and June of 2020, teachers and other school leaders were called to make significant, abrupt changes as they transitioned to distance learning. During this time, the role and responsibilities of ESL teachers varied widely. Depending on the existing infrastructure in place to support MLLs, ESL teachers adapted and, in some cases, were unable to adequately attend to instruction as their attention was directed toward service-related tasks in order to ensure that their students had adequate shelter, food, healthcare, technology, and access to WiFi. This study sought to highlight how ESL teachers assumed, negotiated, and resisted instruction and service-related tasks during ERTL (Morita-Mullaney & Stalling, 2018).


This two-phase case study draws from data collected via 405 completed surveys and 60 semi-structured interviews of ESL teachers conducted between the months of April and June, 2020. The hallmark of case study research is the bounded unit of analysis, otherwise known as the case. Hamel et al. (1993) assert that the goal of case study research is the reconstruction and analysis of a case from a sociological perspective. Similarly, Johnson and Christensen (2008) maintain that case study research is “research that provides a detailed account and analysis of one or more cases” (p. 406). In case study research, the case is determined based on the question(s) that the researcher seeks to answer. Yin (2014) explains that a case is a unit of analysis, which may be an individual, an event or entity. Stake (2006) furthers that each case can be a “bounded system” in that it is made up of interrelated components or characteristics that have identifiable boundaries. Data were analysed for evidence of SIMS in place prior to the start of the pandemic in order to evaluate which SIMS are effective in providing MLLs with uninterrupted language learning and which infrastructural approaches are ineffective. For the purpose of this study, we narrow in on the state of Minnesota drawn from a larger scale study (Cushing-Leubner et al., 2021; Morita-Mullaney et al., 2021).


Study participants were recruited according to readily available teacher contact information in each state. In Indiana and Minnesota, surveys were distributed to the membership of each state’s TESOL affiliate. TESOL International is the predominant professional organization in the field of ESL. As such, MinneTESOL (Minnesota) and INTESOL (Indiana) facilitated the distribution of surveys to practicing K-12 ESL teachers in public district, public charter, and private schools in Minnesota and Indiana. Minnesota also utilized The ELM Project listserv to distribute surveys. In the state of Wisconsin, schools with ESL programs were identified using the Department of Public Instruction list of school districts and teachers, and participants were solicited using the emails listed on their school websites. Participants were novice and experienced ESL teachers.

Data collection: Surveys

A survey was divided into three sections: teacher and school demographic information, ESL teacher instruction provided before and during ERTL, and ESL teacher services provided before and during ERTL. The multiple choice survey was created using Qualtrics and shared via hyperlink. At the end of the survey, participants were given the opportunity to volunteer to participate in a follow-up interview. Data were disaggregated by state to examine patterns across these demographically similar contexts. While this study starts with an overview of the three states, its main focus is on the state of Minnesota, where SIMS looks different compared to other Midwest states studied (Indiana and Wisconsin). Of the 405 ESL teachers that responded, 47% were Minnesota teachers.

Data collection: Interviews

The semi-structured interviews were conducted via Zoom and WebEx. Data were transcribed using Zoom and WebEx as well. Interview questions were focused on the categories of instruction and service. Items related to instruction focused on frequency, methods of delivery, and content of instruction. In the area of service, items pertained to ways in which ESL teachers served ELs in non-instructional ways. Participants also reported the percentage of time that they spent working on instruction compared to the percentage of time that they spent working on service prior to and during ERTL. Finally, they were asked to consider how they may have been positioned to carry out these instructional and service roles. Of the 60 follow-up interviews that were conducted, Minnesota ESL teachers represented 45% of the total number of participants.

Data analysis

Data were coded and analysed using NVivo software. We utilized thematic coding to examine how ESL teachers assumed, negotiated and resisted particular instruction and service-related tasks during ERTL. Teachers who assumed tasks did what they were asked to do. Teachers who negotiated tasks voiced their opinions and found a middle ground. Teachers who resisted tasks refused to engage in tasks based on principle or bandwidth. The heuristic guiding this article is the five elements of SIMS which are: 1) informed, 2) proactive, 3) collaborative, 4) distributed, and 5) responsive.

Findings: Effective SIMS

This investigation demonstrated that quality MLL programming is not dependent on the number of MLLs served, rather the infrastructure that is in place. Through coding and analysis of the data, three themes emerged as features of systems that are aligned with the five elements of SIMS. SIMS functions with: 1) expert professionals in a distributed leadership model; 2) collaboration and co-teaching; and 3) technology support in place. While this study didn’t seek to find infrastructural elements that impeded ESL teachers’ ability to provide uninterrupted language instruction during ERTL, two emerged. They are presented below as examples of ineffective infrastructure for multilingual learners.

Expert professionals in a distributed leadership model

This finding attends to the first and fourth elements of SIMS: informed and distributed. These systems are informed by experts in the field and leadership responsibilities are shared amongst colleagues. In the case of K-12 schooling, leadership responsibilities can be taken up by the building principal, assistant principal, district level ESL coordinator, multicultural liaison, teacher, and other staff. When schools had this element of SIMS in place, ESL teachers were also more apt to be able to carry out instruction during ERTL. One teacher participant reported:

Our ELL coordinator was very instrumental. We had weekly check ins with her… She has the ear of the curriculum and instruction people at the district… so if issues came up, she could bring them up at the district level too. 

Reflecting on school-level leadership structures, another teacher shared:

Oh my principal is the most supportive principal I’ve ever had. I, which is why I’m never leaving… I also had weekly check-ins with my coach to help me work through any issues

Finally, this participant expresses that she works on a high functioning collaborative leadership team when she says:

I feel like I’m very fortunate. I have a support staff. If I reach out to an assistant principal and say, ‘This needs to happen’, it will get done… We’ve been able to get tons of help. And everybody is definitely, at least in my building, in my experience, 100% there to make sure that the [MLLs] are getting what they need.

The above selections from participant interviews illustrate how a distributed leadership model can offer a web of support to be accessed when needed, relieving the ESL teacher from the pressure they may feel to be the be-all and end-all for MLLs in their classes.

Collaboration and co-teaching

The third element of SIMS is that they are collaborative. In schools with a collaborative approach to service and instruction, ESL teachers reported little disruption to their language instruction at the onset of ERTL. One element of SIMS that presented itself repeatedly in the data is a collaboration and co-teaching model. One teacher reported: 

We meet non-stop. I feel like we’re texting and talking in PLC all the time… So the five of us kind of just work together to make sure that we’re hitting different areas where we’re focusing with different students

Whereas some co-teaching models fall short when it comes to collaboration and co-planning, this team is cohesive and connected. When the responsibilities are spread out over a team of teachers, they are more successful in meeting the needs of all learners. Teacher relationships like those described above develop over time. One participant shared:

I’ve been a teacher for a long time. I’ve been a co-teacher for a long time. And it’s one of those times where all of a sudden… all the things fall in place. The guy I co-teach with, he and I taught [together] for seven years and it was like, “Oh my God we’re doing it, we’re doing like, what you read about.”

This participant refers to the rationale beyond collaboration and co-teaching as an element of SIMS—to reinforce the MLL language learning experience so that it is continuous, uninterrupted, and impermeable to factors outside of the classroom.

Technology support in place

The second element of SIMS is that they are proactive. Technology and technology support facilitated learning environments where ESL teachers were able to carry out uninterrupted language instruction. The proactive aspects of technology that were reported to improve ERTL are:

  • a learning management system (LMS) in place prior to the start of the pandemic;
  • one-to-one devices for all students;
  • a non-instructional technology department that can assist with hardware as well as WiFi;
  • and teachers and students who have a high level of digital literacy. 

A critical component to a smooth transition to distance learning was an LMS in place prior to the transition to ERTL. While many secondary students were already skilled LMS users, few elementary schools had them in place in March of 2020. Dedicated technology support was also critical to ensuring teachers had the bandwidth to provide instruction to MLLs during this time. Many teacher participants in this study reported sacrificing hours of instructional time in lieu of student tech support. One teacher shared how this infrastructure allowed her to do her job when students needed her the most. She shares:

When we’ve needed technical support, our administration is on top of it to make sure that things are delivered in a timely manner and following up to make sure that it doesn’t go into the black hole of service tickets.

Schools with technology support infrastructure in place allowed MLLs to engage in more uninterrupted instructional time.

By far, the most challenging aspect of technology during ERTL was the lack of reliable WiFi. The pandemic revealed how many families were without connectivity and the support that these families needed so that their children could participate in school was significant. Whereas some teacher participants were struggling to negotiate with the local cable company on the weekends, another remarked:

We had a cultural liaison that would literally go to the apartment complex and help these kids get it hooked up because, if after multiple calls and multiple times, the kids just were not able to get it hooked up for whatever reason, he finally just went to the house and hooked it up.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that access to technology is a basic need, not a privilege. When students have this basic need met, their academic experience is less likely to be impacted during a time of crisis.

Findings: Ineffective infrastructure for MLLs

While the aim of this article is on SIMS that improved ESL teachers’ ability to focus on instruction during ERTL, there were also examples of approaches to school infrastructure that bore out negatively when it came to ESL teachers’ instructional bandwidth. The data show two structural aspects that negatively impacted the continuous language learning experience for MLLs during ERTL. It is significant that data from both of these findings were present exclusively amongst ESL teachers in charter schools.

Dual teacher – MLL coordinator role

Data revealed that a number of ESL teacher participants in charter schools are asked to wear multiple hats—they may serve instructional as well as administrative roles, without adequate time built into the day or provisions in place to prevent disruptions to MLL language instruction. In the case of ERTL, schools with pre-existing limited capacity to support MLLs that assigned one person to multiple roles, such as school-wide MLL coordinator and ESL teacher, experienced impeded possibility for collaborative and distributive SIMS. MLLs benefit from teams of professionals who are committed to their best interests. In the absence of a professional team, dual role professionals will defer to administrative tasks and sacrifice instruction. Educators in these roles reported that they were often unable to provide direct instruction to MLLs during ERTL due to time constraints. Sometimes these roles were assumed and sometimes they were ascribed. Highlighting the complexity and demand of the position, one teacher/coordinator shared her duties in addition to teaching:

I also serve as the EL coordinator, which has some coaching. I’m also our school district assessment coordinator and migrant liaison… I’m the first point of contact for a lot of our immigrant families and so I help students access internet, access housing, access food.

Throughout the interview transcripts, professionals in these dual roles referred to themselves as “therapist,” “mother,” and “social worker”—roles that they didn’t feel prepared to carry out. They witnessed students struggle as a result of the limited school support and often took that on as a personal failure. One teacher/coordinator reflected on their instructional delivery being reduced to sporadic homework help:

It was just… horrible. I didn’t hear from three of my level ones [WIDA Proficiency Levels], the entire time… They would pull up their assignment, and I would just come up with something on the fly…It was just absolutely horrible—not proud of anything I did.

In many cases, dedicated language instruction goals were eliminated entirely from MLLs’ schedules and ESL teachers were relegated to attend exclusively to general education goals. Perhaps the most poignant comment from a teacher/coordinator was:

So I honestly did not do very much instruction… And I think that our whole distance learning process was very inequitable, especially towards our language learners. 

Study participants were cognizant of the ways in which MLLs were being provided a sub-par learning experience but it was out of their locus of control.

At-will educator employment

In the state of Minnesota, the vast majority of teachers in charter schools have at-will teaching contracts, which means that they can be dismissed at any time without advance notice and are without access to tenure or union representation (Eischens, 2021; Resilient Educator Editorial Team, 2021). Participants in this study illustrated the strain that they experience due to these conditions. Feeling frustrated and unappreciated, one teacher/coordinator shared: 

And nobody else really even understands, so they just kind of treat us like a hot potato.

Certainly, this falls in stark contrast to the second and third elements of SIMS, which are that they are proactive and collaborative. In line with previous findings, another participant reported being misunderstood by their colleagues and indentured to general education support:

I just positioned myself as, “All right, let’s get all of you across the finish line in your other classes. Let’s not focus on this one [EL class].” And I think I was forced into that position by other staff members, just because they were not going to accommodate or modify anything.

The perception of being misunderstood escalated in one case to an ESL teacher feeling threatened by general education colleagues. This teacher remarked:

There are teachers in the building that when I try to remind them there’s an [individual language plan] and the students are entitled to accommodations that I get screamed at and cussed at in front of students. So yes, it’s pretty regular that I have to do that. And pretty regular that kids won’t get service because that’s not what I want to risk my career over today, you know?

Not only did this participant feel threatened by her colleagues in the classroom, she also felt that their employment could be compromised if they advocated for MLLs.

It was apparent in the data from teachers at charter schools that they often made instructional decisions cognizant of the unprotected nature of their teaching positions. As teachers without union support or the possibility of tenure, they are at-will and can be terminated at any time. In the vast data set collected for this study across three states, there is just one example of a charter school teacher resisting an instructional decision and there are no examples of a charter school teacher resisting a service-related task. This degree of tension has the potential to result in high teacher turnover, which limits the collective expertise of a teaching faculty, thus hindering the first element of SIMS, which is that educators are informed.


In cases where SIMS was ineffective, language instruction was de-emphasized as MLLs, already struggling and marginalized, found themselves unable to meet their most immediate needs—shelter, food, and healthcare. During this time, ESL teachers worked tirelessly to support their students in any way that they were needed. They delivered food, arranged for home WiFi for families, accompanied students to the hospital when they were sick, and one even spearheaded a fundraiser that collected $10,000 to support MLL families who were in jeopardy of losing their homes. This is important work. This is critical work. ESL teachers should not be in the position to choose whether to offer support needed for survival or to provide language instruction. When schools have SIMS in place such as distributed leadership, technology support, and a model for teacher collaboration, teachers are able to fully dedicate themselves to what they have been prepared to do—provide MLLs with the linguistic tools they need to thrive in school.

Access to grade-level content is a right in U.S. schools. Supreme Court rulings on Lau v. Nichols (1974) and Castañeda v. Pickard (1981) established that schools must provide students identified as English learners with language support. Areas for future research include application of the SIMS heuristic to research in different school settings to better understand the relationship between infrastructure, teacher practice, and MLL experience/outcomes and reveal additional SIMS that contribute to uninterrupted language learning for MLLs. Additionally, further examination of the unequal access to MLL language instruction in charter vs. public schools revealed in this investigation is needed to better understand how state and federal policies may inadvertently allow for loopholes that sacrifice student learning. 

ERTL illuminated and exacerbated some equity gaps that we can learn from moving forward. The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first wide-scale crisis that has impacted schooling and it will not be the last. Findings will have significance for (1) district and school-level strategic design for MLL school-wide support and (2) federal and state policies about SIMS that adhere to existing federal law by protecting the roles of ESL teachers and the rights of MLLs. MLLs deserve to have safe, healthy lives and the support needed to succeed in content-area classrooms. We can achieve this by building systemic infrastructure strong enough to withstand the next crisis without the education of MLLs being a casualty.


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The Community English Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham provides free English classes to adult learners from the international community. Housed in the School of Education for the past decade, this program serves as a “lab” school with a standards-based language curriculum taught by MA-TESOL students. By reflecting on how this lab school developed, we identify strategies for ongoing improvement.
Keywords: adult learners, lab school, standards-based curriculum, strategies, ongoing improvement, international community, free English classes

Ten years ago, budget cuts and institutional restructuring threatened to eliminate English conversation classes, a free service provided for over two decades by the International House at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). We, as English as a Second Language (ESL) faculty in the School of Education (SOE), were shocked at this pending loss and immediately sought a solution. The SOE secured these English classes and housed them in the Education Building. We restructured these classes with the dual purpose of meeting the language learning needs of international adults from the university community and greater metropolitan area and of meeting the language teaching needs of graduate students from the adult track of a new ESL master’s degree. 

Perceiving a need, preserving a service

By responding quickly to a perceived need, we, along with our SOE administrators, saved the English conversation classes. The ensuing Community English Program (CEP) has served as a laboratory school for two stakeholder groups: (1) students in the master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA-TESOL) who become skilled in their chosen career by teaching English to adult learners, and (2) adult learners from over 50 countries who receive free, high-quality English language classes. These CEP learners represent diverse nationalities, languages, educational backgrounds, age, socioeconomic status, and motivation. They have included UAB employees such as medical researchers and visiting professors as well as employees’ spouses, parents, and other family members. For example, we vividly remember a retired chemistry professor and his wife from Syria who, though visiting their son—a UAB professor, were unable to return home due to an escalating war. CEP learners from the greater metropolitan area exemplify greater diversity such as a group of technology specialists from Colombia who were employed at an international bank’s regional headquarters. Young adults have also participated in CEP classes. We fondly remember the many au pairs from Europe, Brazil, Colombia, and Japan, as well as an Afghan woman who, with limited formal schooling, wanted to learn to read. Our CEP learners also include restaurant employees, construction workers, landscapers, and day laborers; among all these learners are recent arrivals and those who have lived in the United States for decades.

Now, at the 10-year anniversary of our lab school, we reflect on how the dual-purposed CEP supports both international adult English learners and MA-TESOL students learning to be teachers. From among criteria for successful language program administration (Stoller, 1997; TESOL, 2002), we have identified several strategies that have supported this dual purpose and offer insights for their application. These strategies include recognizing changes as they emerge, connecting needs of various stakeholders, linking practice to educational standards, innovating adjustments when faced by unusual circumstances, and planning strategically for the future.

Recognizing changes, developing opportunities in the learning landscape

UAB began offering TESOL methods courses in 1999. This led to an ESL certification program that included K-12 clinicals for teaching English learners. In 2005, some of our potential applicants wanted a path for learning to teach ESL to adult learners. To meet their need, we piloted an “adult option” in an existing master’s degree. For their adult clinicals, these graduate students taught weekly classes at UAB’s International House, the Literacy Council of Central Alabama, community colleges, ethnic centers, and/or faith-based entities (DeRocher et al., 2015). To determine their placements, we considered career goals and available settings (Spezzini et al., 2016). For instance, if graduate students wanted to prepare for teaching academic English, we would arrange their final clinical at UAB’s English Language Institute.

In 2011, two pivotal events opened new opportunities in this learning landscape. In March 2011, we received state approval to launch a master’s degree in ESL. This degree’s third track, called MA-TESOL, was for teaching ESL to adult learners and, as such, needed to align courses with clinicals in adult settings (Spezzini & Olmstead-Wang, 2013). In June 2011, we learned that the International House was charged with discontinuing its English conversation classes. To save these classes, both as a valuable campus legacy and as a clinical venue for teaching adults, we provided a new home for these classes. Literally overnight, we moved the English conversation classes to the SOE with summer classes starting the next day, as planned, but in a different place.

Linking and connecting needs of various stakeholders

A decade ago, we had the foresight to save UAB’s English conversation classes. Though not knowing what the future might bring, we imagined these classes as evolving into a more extensive effort in concert with Standards for Adult Education ESL Programs (TESOL, 2002) and Standards for ESL/EFL Teachers of Adult Learners (TESOL, 2008). Now named CEP, this evolving initiative has more thoroughly incorporated the learning needs of an existing constituency and served as a laboratory school to prepare future ESL teachers (Spezzini et al., 2015). Redesigning programs and clinical experiences: Bridging theory to practice. Paper presented at 49th annual International TESOL Convention. Toronto, ON, Canada). Our goal has always been to provide quality language classes to international adults from UAB’s greater community in a venue where MA-TESOL students could gain quality teaching experience, hone their teaching skills, expand their repertoires of teaching techniques, and benefit from regular, sequenced, professional feedback from SOE mentors.

During these past 10 years, our MA-TESOL students have taught CEP classes weekly, starting in their first semester and ending in their fifth and final semester. We pair MA-TESOL students who have no previous teaching experience as co-teachers with other MA-TESOL students who have experience teaching CEP classes. The MA-TESOL students with previous experience in teaching ESL to adults often skip this co-teacher phase and immediately start teaching their own CEP class. Our expectation is for all MA-TESOL students to have taught at least four different levels of CEP classes before graduating.

After establishing the CEP in the SOE, we converted loosely structured conversation classes into tightly structured classes where adult learners could develop all language modalities, thus more closely meeting the standards of adult ESL programs (TESOL, 2002, 2008). Honoring the premise that language is a social tool, the CEP promotes Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) (Richards & Rodgers, 2014) as its overarching approach towards language teaching and learning. To that end, CEP teachers are expected to use authentic materials and to develop learner-centered activities that build meaning. For language learning goals, they aim to develop multiple competencies such as grammatical competence, sociolinguistic competence, strategic competence, and discourse competence (Canale & Swain, 1980). Through this CLT approach, our CEP teachers also implement Task-Based Language Teaching (Richards & Rodgers, 2014) by focusing on real-world situations. The theories, methods, and techniques used by these CEP teachers for teaching classes are formally linked with the MA-TESOL program through projects and other activities assigned in their second language acquisition and methods courses.

CEP’s development also included iterative steps for blending two cultures of learning—the culture of community language learners and the culture of novice English teachers. We established sequences for placing MA-TESOL students as CEP teachers, developed rubrics to professionalize the training of these CEP teachers, and then upgraded these rubrics to better assess teacher progress. Now, by the CEP’s 10th anniversary, we have an articulated mission statement, flexible class schedules, multiple locations to meet learner needs, and a teacher-learner ratio of about 1 to 6. We also have access to SOE facilities and resources, clear and confidential communication among stakeholders, and an enhanced record keeping system to track English learners’ progress through integrated levels.

Linking education standards and practice, scaffolding to meet demands of best practices

The CEP curriculum has evolved over time. Our most recent curriculum team, which was convened in Summer 2020, consisted of SOE faculty and MA-TESOL students. With the goal of updating our earlier CEP curriculum, this 2020 team based the newly emerging curriculum on the English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). This curriculum team adapted language learning outcomes for each level, provided sample assessments to meet a variety of standards, and prepared learning rubrics to determine whether language learners had mastered sufficient skills for moving to the next of CEP’s five levels. After several iterations, inclusive of cyclical reflection and feedback, the current CEP curriculum reached full implementation in Fall 2021.

For implementing CEP’s current curriculum, MA-TESOL students design weekly lessons on articulated standards and on learner interests, levels, and needs. In their role as CEP teachers, they start each semester by aligning language goals with two or three learning outcomes at the corresponding language level (Prado et al., 2020). On the first day of each semester, all CEP teachers conduct a needs assessment questionnaire and identify content that interests their respective learners. They design their lessons with authentic materials and appropriate technology for engaging these adult learners in interactive learning techniques to develop all four language domains. They align content with learning outcomes so that their CEP class becomes a learning community with a “destination” for the semester (Prado et al., 2020).

By means of evidence-based standards, regular assessment ensures that programs meet benchmarks and conform to best practices. With goals of improving the teaching practice of MA-TESOL students and of supporting language learners, we—as faculty mentors—scaffold the teaching experience for all CEP teachers, but especially for novice teachers and those who are new to the program. Each semester, CEP teachers participate in an orientation session, a mid-semester check-in, and a final wrap-up meeting. These meetings are touch points for questions and concerns. During these meetings and, as needed, throughout the semester, these teachers receive guidance on topics ranging from recommended co-teaching practices (Cook & Friend, 1995; Dormer, 2012) to CEP administrative tasks. Co-teachers share in writing weekly lesson plans and in receiving feedback. In addition, the CEP coordinator observes teachers and provides feedback on the observed teaching episodes.

Language proficiency standards (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) have guided CEP teachers in providing essential scaffolding and other support for CEP learners who, as adults, need language skills for many different environments. Our new CEP curriculum meets Standards for Instruction (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) and, as such, includes instructional activities that adhere to principles of adult language learning and approaches for learners from diverse educational and cultural backgrounds. Activities encourage participatory learning and the acquisition of communication skills through interactive group tasks.

The CEP also meets the standard related to learner recruitment, intake, and orientation (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Intake procedures accurately assess learner levels, needs, and goals. The CEP also meets standards of retention and transition, assessment and learner gains, support services, and professional development. Because the CEP is a lab school, the standard on teaching evaluation is one of its major cornerstones. However, also because it is a lab school, the CEP’s organizational structure does not directly relate to the standard on employment conditions. Nonetheless, to prepare MA-TESOL students for real-world contexts following graduation, we attempt to replicate an employment setting as closely as possible, especially regarding work ethic and performance expectations.

Innovating in emerging circumstances, planning strategically for future contingencies

Flexibility and adaptability are necessary skills for dealing with new circumstances. As ESL faculty, we were flexible in 2011 when inheriting the English conversation classes and converting them into the CEP. We were again flexible in 2019 when incorporating graduate students from the SOE’s new Educational Specialist (EdS) degree in TESOL. As a post-MA degree, the EdS-TESOL attracts experienced ESL professionals, who, as such, bring well-honed teaching skills. By further adapting our existing CEP structure, we included a lead teacher role and incorporated these EdS-TESOL students as lead teachers. By doing so, we provided these TESOL professionals with a coaching experience through which they could demonstrate a competency required in their advanced degree program. As EdS-TESOL students, these professionals provide weekly coaching to novice CEP teachers. This is yet another example of how the CEP’s flexibility and adaptability have benefitted multiple stakeholders of the past, present, and future.

CEP exhibited a different type of flexibility when adapting to the challenges and disruptive factors stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Across the world, this pandemic required an immediate transition from face-to-face (F2F) environments to virtual environments. For the CEP classes, this adaptation involved three stakeholder groups: the SOE’s ESL faculty, the CEP teachers (i.e., MA-TESOL and EdS-TESOL students), and the adult language learners. At UAB, all three groups were relatively new to the online teaching and learning of languages. Fortunately, we—the ESL faculty—had begun transitioning our graduate courses to online in 2019. Based on these experiences, we shared our new skills acquired from creating fully online graduate courses with CEP teachers as they transitioned to teaching English online.

When UAB’s campus closed F2F teaching, we needed to strengthen our graduate students’ knowledge and skills in the online teaching of language. Garrison et al.’s (2000) seminal theory, Community of Inquiry (COI), led CEP to reimagine an online learning community with overlapping COI facets: social presence, cognitive presence, and teaching presence (Prado et al., 2020). According to Garrison et al. (2000), building a social presence consists of both the teacher and the learners authentically interacting and presenting multiple facets of themselves. Likewise, cognitive presence is based on critical thinking but also depends on building meaning through authentic, consistent interactions. The teaching presence is two-fold. As the course designer and learning organizer, the teacher is responsible for presenting an engaging, authentic learning experience. The second component, course facilitation, is shared with learners. In building COI as a community for reciprocal teaching and learning, both the teacher and the learners discuss, question, and problem-solve.

To contextualize COI (Garrison et al., 2000) for language teaching, we integrated principles from second language acquisition. For teaching English learners online, Li (2013) recommends that teachers maintain comprehensible input, relate student learning to the real world, promote social interaction, and facilitate a welcoming learning environment, all of which broadly overlap with COI. These concepts guided our CEP discussions in summer 2020 when MA-TESOL students earned their clinical credit by locating resources for online language teaching and helping design an online curriculum for the CEP classes (Prado et al., 2020). These efforts culminated in an online handbook for CEP teachers, available on our CEP website at

In adherence with UAB mandates, we and the CEP will continue adapting to new challenges for a safe reopening of F2F classes while maintaining strong links to standards, technology improvement, and record-keeping software. Moreover, after we return to physical classrooms, the CEP will continue to provide online classes to language learners who request the convenience and safety of virtual instruction. Having surfaced from a pandemic-induced opportunity, these online classes are now included among the CEP’s regular class offerings.

Reflecting back, looking ahead

During the past decade, we responded to challenges facing our CEP lab school with flexibility, adaptability, and a forward-looking perspective. At strategic historic moments, we transitioned English conversation classes into the CEP, welcomed EdS-TESOL students to serve as lead CEP teachers, and converted classes to online instruction. Originally based on Standards for Adult Education Programs (TESOL, 2002) and on Standards for ESL/EFL Teachers of Adults (TESOL, 2008) and with a curriculum aligned to English Language Proficiency Standards for Adult Education (U.S. Department of Education, 2016), the CEP now also aligns with The 6 Principles for Exemplary Teaching of English Learners: Adult Education and Workplace Development (Hellman et al., 2019). Together, these standards and principles provide benchmarks for assessing CEP strengths and overcoming challenges. Guided by these benchmarks, the CEP will continue meeting the dual purpose of (1) providing clinical placements for MA-TESOL students to teach adult learners and (2) offering free, high quality English classes to international members of the extended UAB community.

Upon reaching our lab school’s 10-year milestone, we have identified key strategies of language program administration (Stoller, 1997; TESOL, 2002) used to make transitions, initiate improvements, and build for the future. These strategies include identifying opportunities, pivoting directions, reorganizing program components, linking the needs of constituencies to best practices and learning standards, and converting challenges into innovations. By continuing to use these same strategies and adjusting as needed, we look ahead to ushering the CEP into its second decade.


We thank Dr. Julia S. Austin for her contribution to the CEP and for her help with this article.


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