A UNITED future for education

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  • Fones began her career as an ESL teacher in a rural K-12 school. Her experiences have inspired her to advocate for better academics for ESL students.

  • Durham is dedicated to preparing teachers to work with Iowa’s increasing population of immigrant and refugee youth.

  • UNI’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) teaching program allows students the opportunity to work hands-on with students learning English. Project UNITED will provide further support and resources to help fill the need for ESL certified teachers in Iowa schools.

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KATE MURPHY, Staff Writer

UNI professors awarded $1 million grant for ESL project 

A grant worth over one million dollars was awarded to the Department of Languages and Literatures for an English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers preparation project aimed at helping teachers be more prepared to get ESL certified in Iowa.

Assistant Professors Aliza Fones and Carmen Durham were awarded the grant this year for a project known as Project UNITED, which stands for University of Northern Iowa Teacher Education for Diverse Learners. Both are assistant professors working at the University of Northern Iowa, and have been working on getting this grant for the past year. 

According to Fones, she’s been extremely motivated to work in ESL for a long time. She’s in her fourth year teaching at University of Northern Iowa.

Durham said that she and Fones are the ones who created the proposal to get awarded the grant and are also the ones who set the goals for this project.

“We are the directors of the project and oversee all the steps to complete it. Aliza and I will oversee how the funds are spent, and we will ensure that we meet the goals of the project,” Durham said. “However, a lot of others at University of Northern Iowa will also benefit from the funds and will support us.”

Two other associate professors, Elizabeth Zwanziger and Elise DuBord, are also going to help recruit students and select scholarship recipients for project UNITED.

“They are really knowledgeable about K-12 schools in Iowa and the needs of future teachers in ESL,” Durham said.

Durham and Fones also worked closely with Rebecca Rinehart, who is a pre-award administrator at the University of Northern Iowa, and that’s how they learned to apply for the grant.

“She was so knowledgeable. It’s a well known grant in our field, big universities get this grant a lot and Carmen and I know other colleagues who have gotten it before,” Fones said. “When we realized it was being offered in March we just jumped on it.”

Fones said with her experience previously working, she wanted to come back to help bring more teachers into the field.

“I’ve been doing this work for a long time, I started out as a K-12 teacher for ESL in a rural area where I’m from. I’m very motivated by the need for better academics for English learning speakers,” Fones said.

Durham elaborated more on the project they created and why this issue is becoming more prominent in the state of Iowa in particular.

“There is a growing population of immigrant and refugee youth in Iowa, even in rural areas, and we want to make sure that teachers are ready to work with these students,” Durham said.

Fones said with the help of their partnership with Area Education Agency, they’ll be able to reach out to multiple teachers across multiple districts even in rural areas. Fones also said that using this grant to give out more scholarships is the first step in Project UNITED.

“At UNI, providing scholarships and course work opportunities for future faculty, like, pre-serving teachers, that is half the project,” Fones said.

Durham added that it’s also important to provide affordable options for current teachers in Iowa as well so we can grow the amount of teachers with an ESL certification, while preparing students looking to become teachers with ESL training too.

“It can be challenging for UNI students to get multiple certifications when it requires taking additional classes and paying the additional tuition, so we want to lower the barrier.” Durham said.

Fones said their hope is to grow the capacity at UNI so more teachers can have the training they need as English speaking teachers. Their big picture idea is that this will impact student English learners in Iowa schools.

“I think teachers really care about their students and want to do the best job possible, especially for immigrant and refugee youth, but there are really specific teaching strategies that work for students who are learning English,” Durham said.

Fones said having an impact on the teachers will help students in Iowa get the impact they need as student English learners and hopes this grant will provide teachers the training they need to help their students.

“It’s all about the impact factor,” Fones said. “The impact I can have in K-12 schools and the work I do at UNI is for teachers who will be going out and helping these students. The next step is shaping teachers who can help these students succeed.”