Towson University elementary education interns provide valuable personal attention to English language learners in Baltimore City schools.
It’s nearing 9 a.m. on a brisk Wednesday in March, and once-bustling corridors at Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights Elementary/Middle School are silent.
With teachers and children dispersed to classrooms, the Towson University student interns become more obvious. Gathered in the lobby near the school’s tiny koi pond, some stand chatting while others perch on kid-size chairs. They’re awaiting the arrival of Kerianne Croce, associate professor of elementary education and their ELED 357 instructor.
As Croce enters, the interns stir in anticipation.
Within seconds, they’re en route to teach, each with an assigned English language learner.
ELED 357 (Linguistically Diverse Learners in the Classroom) is the first course they’ve taken in the screened major and, for most, this weekly internship marks their introduction to teaching. Now three weeks in, they’re gaining confidence and a better understanding of their role as teachers.
Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights Elementary School/Middle School, on Baltimore’s industrial southeast side, serves a majority Hispanic/Latino enrollment in pre-K through 8th grade—and it’s far from alone. Maryland schools enroll nearly 70,000 children who speak a language other than English at home. And although Spanish speakers predominate, more than 200 languages are represented among students statewide.
“There’s an enormous need for teachers who can work with multilingual students,” says Croce, who developed ELED 357 four years ago in response to the College of Education’s strategic goal of expanding involvement in urban education, both locally and across the state.
ELED 357 combines classroom instruction with off-site teaching, an approach that enables students to apply what they’ve learned in weekly visits to participating schools.
Since 2016 Croce and her interns have partnered with a small group of Baltimore City schools, working one-on-one with English language learners. From the outset she aimed to establish strong relationships with school faculty, staff and students. “We approached them and asked how we could help,” she recalls. “Our success depends on knowing what the school and community need.”
Ashley Kurdziolek, a junior from Mount Airy, Maryland, remembers her first day as an intern at Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights, noting that “the faculty and staff were very welcoming and excited to have us there.”
Kurdziolek says she and her classmates were ready for their first foray into the classroom. “Dr. Croce really prepared us,” she says. “On campus we learned all kinds of activities and creative approaches to teaching English. At the school, she was always there to help us figure out what to do if we got stuck.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if I’m succeeding—whether the child is grasping the concept,” Kurdziolek continues. But after three weeks, the intern could tell she was making a difference.
“It’s amazing to see my student grow and understand,” she says.
Her classmate Kori Harris, a junior from Baltimore, says she and her first-grader began by reading Spanish-language books. “Spanish is her comfort zone,” Harris explains, “so I’d ask her to translate the words to English. Now we’re reading only English-language books.
“We talk about the plot and the characters. Learning another language is stressful, so I mix things up and try to make it fun for her.”
A Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights kindergarten teacher notes that the weekly one-on-one attention from an adult is really important for younger children. “They don’t always get that from the regular teachers,” Guienen Behrle says, “and it helps them build confidence and brings them out of their shells.
“They also learn that it’s OK to make a mistake and that everyone is learning together.”
Teaching children English isn’t the only need being addressed at Graceland Park/ O’Donnell Heights. The Maryland-based Kahlert Foundation established a special collection of much-needed ELL books for the school library as well as a multicultural ESL resource library in TU’s College of Education.
A Kahlert Foundation grant has also enabled Croce to offer the school’s faculty on-site TU graduate courses in teaching English as a second language (ESL).
In addition, she teaches a GED math class there for Spanish-speaking parents.
“These initiatives benefit everyone involved,” Croce says. “The courses help prepare Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights faculty for the PRAXIS exam in ESL. Parents earn their GEDs and our interns gain valuable insights and experiences.
“What’s more,” she adds, “Graceland Park/O’Donnell Heights enhances its reputation as a community hub offering a variety of resources to children and their families.”
Six semesters of Baltimore City placements have established a pipeline of ELED 357 TU alumni to Maryland schools, and Croce says she couldn’t be more pleased. “Our graduates enter teaching knowing how to work with English language learners and classroom teachers,” she says.
For Kori Harris, ELED 357 has been personally as well as professionally rewarding.
Harris says she and her first-grade student got to know each other through the internship. “I was sick and missed a Wednesday,” she recalls, “and when I returned she wanted to know where I’d been—she’d missed me.
“One day we were walking around the building, and I explained why reading mattered so much. I told her that doing well in school is important and that education gives you a better life.”
For Harris, the advice came straight from the heart. “This is why I want to teach,” she says.
This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel's priorities for Towson University: TU Matters to Maryland, Culture of Philanthropy.