¡Hola estudiantes!:Teachers in Morgan schools program learning Spanish

Apr. 29—On his first day of school, an eighth grade student looked lost in the halls of West Morgan Elementary — because he should have been at West Morgan Middle.

Third grade teacher Susette Hall quickly realized the student spoke little English. She introduced herself using Spanish she had learned in an after-school class for Morgan County Schools teachers. The 120-hour class, "Conversational Spanish and Culture for K-8 Teachers," has transformed relationships between students, teachers and parents in Morgan County Schools.

"When I saw him, I was at least able to communicate a little bit," Hall said. "He smiled because he knew I was trying to fumble through it."

Hall had never taken a Spanish class until last fall when she joined a cohort of 13 Morgan County teachers learning Spanish after school. The class is entirely funded by a $99,143 grant from the Alabama State Department of Education, and the teachers who complete it will receive a $4,000 stipend.

Patrick Patterson, who oversees state testing for Morgan County Schools, had the idea for the initiative when he noticed an achievement gap between native speakers and English learners (EL).

"A lot of folks had this concept that we should be teaching Spanish to all of our students in the primary grades, and I don't necessarily disagree with that," Patterson said. "But the EL students are the students who have the gap. So why don't we do something to support them?"

Of the 7,610 students in Morgan County Schools, 7% speak English as a second language. Almost all of Morgan County's EL students speak Spanish but, like most schools in the state, the school system lacks classroom teachers who are bilingual. Patterson's idea moves toward changing that.

"We should be in the business of changing lives forever," Patterson said. "That is why we're in this business. Simple. Any educator who walks in that door day one, that's why they're there."

Primary instruction for students will remain in English, as directed by the state, but relationships between teachers, parents and all students have changed due to the program.

"My students are first graders. They were just in awe that their teacher had a class to go to on Tuesdays, and that I'm learning just like they're learning," said Rebekah Hopper of West Morgan Elementary. "It's just made such a better community in my classroom among me, among my parents, and it's just been fabulous."

The class meets every Tuesday after school for three hours, and participants have at least one additional hour of self-study at home. The 30-week course will total 120 hours.

"I think the sheer numbers of Hispanic students inspired me," said Lori Odin, who teaches fourth grade at Union Hill. "I love learning new things, and I love language. The stipend didn't hurt, but that was not the most important factor. I was excited to learn for free."

Teachers had to apply for the program last fall, and 13 were selected. They came from West Morgan Elementary, West Morgan Middle and Union Hill School.

When the teachers told their students about the program, students were excited to help their teachers practice and ask them what they learned.

"Now the students, if you will, are becoming the instructor," Patterson said. "That's a whole flip of the expectations. Students were holding the teacher accountable to 'Are you still going to class?' 'What are you learning?' So many higher order positive things going on there that as an educator and as an educational leader, you get excited about that."

The program's success, Patterson believes, starts with its instructor Dennis Willingham. Willingham retired in 2022 but spent 32 years teaching Spanish — 16 of them at Hartselle High School. He designed the curriculum for the class.

"I wasn't sure at first if it was going to turn out well, but the whole class has just been a blessing," Willingham said. "They have worked so hard even though they're working full days at school and dealing with their families. It's just amazing to me that a few of them in the class said they would take a second year without any stipend."

Willingham said the teachers arrived in class with varying levels of experience. Some had no experience, while others had taken high school or college Spanish years ago. They started with basics like greetings, numbers and weather but have added vocabulary specific for teachers.

"They wanted words for communicating with parents in a dire situation, like if there was something about the kid's grades, or something about the kid's health that they needed to mention," Willingham said. "They also wanted words for discipline."

Every session, Willingham asks the teachers for feedback to better tailor the class to their needs. He said they've completely outperformed his expectations.

Laurie Keaty, a first grade teacher at West Morgan Elementary, said students introduce her to their parents as "my teacher who's learning Spanish." She said she can always count on them to quiz her and ask questions about her Spanish class.

Kim Jones, who teaches fourth grade at West Morgan, said she noticed a Hispanic student who spoke fluent English practicing her Spanish using Duolingo, a language learning app the teachers have used to practice.

"She said, 'Well, I just can't read it very well,'" Jones said. "She's now trying to read what her parents speak. Most kids can speak it, but not write it or read it."

Patterson believes the impactful relationships made with teachers in early grades will carry on through a student's academic career. He said he's applying for the grant again so a new cohort of teachers can learn some basic Spanish. It will be awarded in August.

When state test scores return this summer, Patterson believes EL students' scores will show a bump thanks to the program.

"Everyone wants to improve student achievement, and I'm no different," Patterson said. "But at the same time, if you can do something that can truly change the culture of your school, the culture of your community and the method by which students learn and teachers provide instruction, to me that's the sweet spot."

audrey.johnson@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2437.