Rose Ramirez, a teacher’s assistant in Aurora, had a longtime dream of becoming a teacher. Attending college, however, seemed an unattainable goal for the woman, who immigrated to the U.S. when she was 5 years old and is raising two young children with her husband, a store manager.

Thanks to a federal grant designed in part to help train new teachers by subsidizing their tuition, Ramirez has spent nearly every Tuesday night this fall in an Aurora University math class as part of a teacher training program.

“I always wanted this ever since I was a little girl, and now I have an opportunity,” said Ramirez, 40, during a break from calculating geometric equations. Ramirez’s goal is to earn a bachelor’s in education so she can become an elementary teacher.

She’s benefiting from a $1 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education given to Aurora University to develop teacher training programs in partnership with East Aurora School District 131.

It will be used to train teachers in bilingual education and English as a second language. It also will help subsidize continuing education for teachers in District 131, one of the state’s most troubled districts. Other Illinois institutions that have received such grants include the University of Illinois, Roosevelt University, Northeastern Illinois University, Elgin Community College and Chicago State University.

The problems facing District 131 are myriad, including a large population of poor, non-English-speaking children. Six of the district’s 15 elementary and middle schools recently were placed on the state’s academic warning list because of failing scores on state achievement tests.

Further exacerbating problems for District 131 is a high turnover each year as experienced teachers take jobs in better-performing districts. In any year, 20 to 30 of the district’s much-needed 150 bilingual teachers leave, officials said.

District leaders are hoping the specialized teacher training will result in a crop of dedicated teachers who will stay and serve as a stable workforce.

“The grant means we can home-grow our own teachers,” said Carmen Acevedo, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for the district. “The need for our district to have more educators representative of the community is great.”

The district decided to tap into a pool of secretaries and classroom assistants such as Ramirez with a desire to teach. Not only are such employees unlikely to leave the district, once they become teachers they can serve as role models.

“I grew up here,” Ramirez said, “and I want to help all the kids I can.”

In East Aurora, 18 staffers are getting their degrees under the program, but many others will benefit as well. Other goals of the grant include training up to 148 existing teachers in bilingual education and English-as-a-second-language skills. Up to 30 teachers from other countries working with temporary certificates will get help in earning college credits for regular teaching licenses.

The program will also promote teaching careers to promising high school students by offering them opportunities to work with younger pupils.

“The reality is that the minority is the majority in this district,” Acevedo said, pointing out that about 3,600 of the district’s 11,400 students in kindergarten through 12th grade are bilingual. Many of them are Hispanic immigrants with limited English skills. More than 50 percent of students come from disadvantaged, low-income families.

“When I look into these kids’ eyes, I see lawyers, doctors and nurses. I want them to be successful,” Acevedo said.

She and university experts are working to design the program so that future educators will have special skills to help them connect with children from diverse cultural backgrounds.

For example, she said, instead of talking about roast beef and potatoes when teaching a basic concept such as balanced food groups to immigrant children, those lessons should incorporate foods the children eat at home, such as tacos and tortillas.

Helping design the program is Salina Shrofel, associate dean of Aurora’s College of Education at Aurora University.

“We teach in their schools and gear the classes for East Aurora. Knowing they have a large limited English population of students, we build that into the classes,” said Shrofel, director of the project.

Those studying to be teachers most likely will not finish for several years because most of them are taking one class at a time while they work full time.

Students such as Avis Miller, 54, don’t mind.

“It’s hard, but we all struggle together,” said Miller, a dean’s assistant. “I’ve always wanted to do this, and maybe I will be in a walker when I get my diploma, but it will be worth it.”

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