Trio of WP Professors Awarded $2.8 Million Grant from the US Department of Education to Bolster Bilingual Education in NJ Schools

An interdisciplinary team of professors at William Paterson University has been awarded a $2.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education for a program that aims to improve literacy instruction for English language learners in New Jersey P-12 schools. In so doing, the program ultimately strives to create equitable access to learning across school subjects for such students. 

Professors Carrie Hong (Educational Leadership and Professional Studies), Maria Tajes (Spanish), and Gladys Vega (Bilingual Education/ESL) applied for and are executing the five-year grant. Their grant application for “Program LEES: Literacy Empowerment in English and Spanish,” which will be directed by Vega, ranked fourth out of 144 applications nationwide. 

The grant will allow William Paterson University to provide scholarships to 50 pre-service and 50 in-service teachers who are interested in pursuing certification in K-12 bilingual education, to help meet the demand for such teachers in area schools.

The grant will also fund professional development workshops in dual language literacy for 400 in-service preschool teachers and paraprofessionals who work in the school districts of Clifton, Hackensack, Passaic, and Paterson – districts that have high rates both of English language learners and low-income families, per the NJ Department of Education.

Citing numerous academic studies, the professors argue that English language learners (ELLs) who receive literacy instruction in their native language, in addition to English, score higher on English literacy tests than those students who receive literacy instruction in English only. Furthermore, studies show that students in bilingual literacy programs perform better across core academic subjects than students in English-only literacy programs.

However, successful bilingual literacy programs rely on teachers who can deliver quality instruction in both languages, and the current pool of such qualified teachers in New Jersey “is very limited,” the professors say. Moreover, the state’s preschool teachers are “rarely” certified in bilingual education, they continue, because the State does not mandate bilingual education before kindergarten.

Hong, Tajes, and Vega hope their grant-funded “Program LEES” will help create a brighter future for some of the State’s most vulnerable children. The cause, for them, is both professional and personal; Hong grew up in South Korea, Tajes in Spain, and Vega in Argentina.  

Hong and Tajes learned English as college students in the U.S. Vega attended Spanish-English bilingual schools in Argentina during her formative years, so she was fluent in both languages from a young age. She worked as a third-grade teacher in a bilingual school in Buenos Aires before relocating to the U.S.

“Foreign and heritage students are at the mercy of educators like us who speak their language, understand their culture, and can mentor them,” Tajes says. “I was fortunate enough to find that kind of support from Hispanic professors and I'm glad to pay it forward.”