Urban schools have long been trying to tackle the challenges of working with non-English speaking students, but rural areas are increasingly faced with addressing the needs of these students.
For example, the Hispanic population in DeSoto County has nearly tripled over the past decade to as many as 15,000, area Catholic Church officials estimate. This skyrocketing population creates an “urgent” need, said Ron Fuentes, University of Mississippi instructional assistant professor of modern languages and assistant director of the Intensive English Program.
“In DeSoto County, especially in regard to K-12 education, there’s a lot of young English language learners [ELL] going into the school systems,” Fuentes said. “One teacher I spoke to said she has 60 to 80 ELL students. The schools are understaffed and, generally, this student population has been underserved. This is something we have to pay attention to. We have to serve these students’ needs.”
The surging Hispanic population in the area has prompted UM to assist by training more ELL teachers in the area. So far, 16 area teachers have responded, enrolling in an accelerated Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) master’s degree program at the university’s DeSoto Center.
“When you have a class where a third of the students are English language learners, that puts a huge pressure on both the teachers and the schools,” Fuentes said. “This master’s degree program in DeSoto County is absolutely vital.”
While the new 36-credit-hour program is helping to meet a strong need, its teachers’ biggest problem is inspiring their Hispanic students to learn, said Esim Erdim, professor of modern languages and director of the TESL program.
“If these new Hispanic students don’t get involved, if they don’t see themselves using the knowledge they are provided and see themselves succeeding in this new culture and society, then they won’t learn,” Erdim said. “We have to make sure these Hispanic students can visualize themselves succeeding here, and helping them learn the English language is key to that goal. Language is identity. It’s more than just teaching them the rules of the language. It’s also teaching them that this new language is a part of themselves.”
Offering live evening courses as well as online courses, the DeSoto Center TESL master’s program provides the same professors, courses, textbooks and academic requirements that are offered on the Oxford campus. The only difference is the student body.
Theresa Smith is one of those students. Recently unemployed, the 25-year-old newlywed stays at home during the day to care for her 5-month-old baby. She enrolled in the master’s program to expand her career options.
“The TESL program helps reveal how children and second-language learners understand English, and that knowledge will be valuable to me in the future,” said Smith, who hopes to one day write a children’s book. “I’m very excited about this program and the opportunities it is providing me.”
Smith said her peers in Southaven are experienced and focused, and, since most of her classmates work full time and pay out-of-pocket for their education, failure is not an option.
“It’s encouraging to be around students who try so hard,” Smith said.
Besides DeSoto County, the Hispanic population continues to increase across the state, and UM is preparing to expand the master’s TESL degree program to its other satellite campuses in Grenada, Tupelo and Booneville. The endeavor fits into Chancellor Dan Jones’ wish for The University of Mississippi to help transform the state through service.
“This university is training future teachers of English as a second language across the state,” said Don Dyer, professor and chair of modern languages. “We’re bringing this service to the teachers in their own communities to provide them with the instruction they need.”
The stakes are high for the two-year program. Historically, Dyer said this country has had a poor attitude toward providing immigrant students with the necessary bridge to become proficient English speakers. He said it is critical to reach these non-native English speakers, and Fuentes agreed.
“We can’t afford to lose these Hispanic students,” Fuentes said. “If they end up dropping out of school, then it just creates larger societal problems. This is an issue we must address.”