How one small town is teaching English to kids of immigrants

Oct 19, 2022, 7:13 AM | Updated: 7:46 am

RUSSELLVILLE, Ala. (AP) — As part of an exercise to help the class learn English, a third grader pulled a block from a Jenga tower and read aloud a question written on one side. “Where,” the boy read, then slowly sounded out the other words: “Where would you like to visit?”

“Disneyland,” one student said. “Space,” another classmate chimed in. “Guatemala,” said a girl with a bright blue bow.

Kathy Alfaro, a new English language teacher at Russellville Elementary, exchanged a few words with the girl in Spanish and then turned to the other students. “Do y’all know what she said?” Alfaro asked the class. “She said she has a lot of family in Guatemala because she was born there. And I told her that I was born here, but I also have a lot of family in Guatemala.”

This northern Alabama community with large numbers of Hispanic immigrants is using federal COVID-19 relief money for an experiment to serve students who are still learning English. They are hiring and certifying more local, Spanish-speaking staff, like Alfaro. She was previously a Spanish teacher, but took a new role teaching children the English language.

More than half of 2,500 students in the small Russellville city school district identify as Hispanic or Latino, and about a quarter are still learning English — known as EL students.

But the district at times has struggled to find the people and money necessary to help EL students achieve. It typically takes five years of intensive, small-group instruction, on top of regular classes, to help a student learn English and perform well in a regular classroom.

In addition to helping more local students succeed, Russellville aims to be a model for the rest of the country.

“We were trying to teach an increasing number of EL students with predominantly white teachers that speak English,” said Superintendent Heath Grimes. “And I’m like, ‘Why are we not using resources that we have in our community?'”

As a group, English learners performed lower on language proficiency tests during the pandemic. Experts say that may be because many students lacked good access to online classes at home, or because schools struggled to transfer in-person EL help to remote environments.

Russellville appears to be bucking that trend.

Districtwide, the percentage of students who met their language proficiency goals increased from 46% in 2019 to 61% in 2022. At the two elementary schools, proficiency jumped by nearly 30 percentage points.

“We’ve never seen a number like that before,” said Grimes, who credits new EL teachers and aides for the boost.

Some of the nation’s largest districts, according to the Education Trust, used pandemic relief money to hire bilingual staff. As federal aid money begins to run out and schools prepare for post-pandemic budget cuts, experts and advocates warn against reducing support for EL programs and other interventions.

“Our overreliance on federal funds and temporary funds potentially demonstrates that we’re not doing enough as a state already,” said Carlos Alemán, director of the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama. “As we see those dollars wind down, then the state should really reflect and review what it can do to make sure that these programs can remain in place.”

Russellville school officials are working on ways to sustain the new roles — and holding out hope the state will boost long-term funding for EL education.

State funding for English language programs is limited, but growing. The state legislature approved $2.9 million for schools with large EL populations in 2018, and that amount grew to $16 million last year.

Leaders at the Alabama State Department of Education are asking for more room in this year’s budget for EL specialists and regional coordinators.

“We want to make sure that if students come to this country, if they’re not able to read, that they learn to read quickly and in English,” state Superintendent Eric Mackey said. “We’re going to continue to invest in that, because it’s our belief that every child deserves a high-quality education.”

Advocates say money for EL students often falls short, especially in rural districts that struggle to fund schools.

“It takes a lot more money to educate a child that does not speak your language,” said state Rep. Jamie Kiel, a Russellville Republican, who has called for putting more money toward EL students in the state budget.

Alfaro is one of three EL staffers at her school. They join about 20 other EL educators, aides and translators in the district — nearly half of whom are paid with COVID-19 relief money.

At West Elementary across the street, Elizabeth Alonzo, who is in her second year as an EL aide, said she never expect to have such a role — mostly because there were few bilingual teachers in her school growing up, but also because she didn’t think she had the qualifications.

Alonzo is finishing coursework through a teacher training program called Reach University, which is contracting with an increasing number of Alabama districts to help certify more local staff.

“Whenever I started kindergarten, I didn’t know a word of English, so I struggled a lot,” she said, noting that an older cousin would often have to come to her class to translate what her teacher was saying. “That was one of the reasons why I wanted to do this, because I want to help those students.”


Trisha Powell Crain contributed to this story. The Alabama Education Lab team at is supported through a partnership with Report for America.


This story is part of Tackling Teacher Shortages, a collaboration between, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Fresno Bee in California, The Hechinger Report, The Seattle Times and The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, with support from the Solutions Journalism Network.


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


A resident of Salinas, considered one of the most contaminated towns in Puerto Rico, waits for a me...
Associated Press

Puerto Rico’s southern region fights for cleaner air, water

SALINAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — Shuttered windows are a permanent fixture in Salinas, an industrial town on Puerto Rico’s southeast coast that is considered one of the U.S. territory’s most contaminated regions. For years, toxic ash and noxious chemicals from coal-fired and thermoelectric power plants have enveloped this community, and residents have complained about health […]
10 hours ago
People lay flowers to commemorate British volunteers Chris Parry and Andrew Bagshaw, killed in Ukra...
Associated Press

Russia alleges Ukraine war crimes; friends mourn volunteer

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Friends and volunteers gathered Sunday at Kyiv’s St Sophia’s Cathedral to say goodbye to Andrew Bagshaw, a New Zealand scientist who was killed in Ukraine while he and another volunteer who also died tried to evacuate people from a front-line town. Bagshaw, 48, a dual New Zealand-British citizen, and British volunteer […]
10 hours ago
Jessie Blanchard's jeep bumper holds a sticker with the slogan "Yes We Narcan" on Monday, Jan. 23, ...
Associated Press

Experts urge better opioid rescue drug access to save lives

ALBANY, Ga. (AP) — Jessie Blanchard started small nearly five years ago, just trying to get enough of the rescue drug naloxone that reverses opioid overdoses to keep her daughter from dying from an overdose. She pleaded with colleagues at the college where she’s an adjunct teacher in Albany, Georgia, to use their prescription benefits […]
10 hours ago
Qatar's Minister of State for Energy Affairs Saad Sherida al-Kaabi, right, shakes hands with Lebane...
Associated Press

Qatar replaces Russian company in Lebanon gas exploration

BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon, two international oil giants and state-owned oil and gas company Qatar Energy signed an agreement Sunday that the Qatari firm will join a consortium that will search for gas in the Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon’s coast. The deal inked in Beirut brings Qatar into Lebanon’s gas exploration market three months after […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

France must raise pension age to 64, prime minister says

PARIS (AP) — France’s prime minister insisted Sunday that the government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 is “no longer negotiable,” further angering parliamentary opponents and unions who plan new mass protests and disruptive strikes this week. Raising the pension age is one part of a broad bill that is the […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Australia mining company sorry for losing radioactive device

PERTH, Australia (AP) — A mining corporation on Sunday apologized for losing a highly radioactive capsule over a 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) stretch of Western Australia, as authorities combed parts of the road looking for the tiny but dangerous substance. The capsule was part of a device believed to have fallen off a truck while being transported […]
10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Pexels Photo)...

Sports gambling can be fun for adults, but it’s a dangerous game for children

While adults may find that sports gambling is a way to enhance the experience with more than just fandom on the line, it can be a dangerous proposition if children get involved in the activity.
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Prep the plumbing in your home just in time for the holidays

With the holidays approaching, it's important to know when your home is in need of heating and plumbing updates before more guests start to come around.
(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
How one small town is teaching English to kids of immigrants