UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Of all the advice Evangeline Chow received while she was a student in the Penn State College of Education, one lesson sticks with her most.
“Representation in the classroom matters,” the 2009 alumna recalled. “When the student body sees teachers who look like them, that means something.”
Chow, the daughter of first-generation immigrants from Hong Kong, said these words, spoken to her by Maria Schmidt, assistant dean for multicultural programs, helped to inspire her teaching ambitions. During her five years at Penn State — she returned in 2010 to earn her master’s degree in special education — Chow completed two international experiences in Kenya and participated in the Urban Education Seminar program (formerly the Philadelphia Urban Seminar), a Maymester course that takes student teachers to Philadelphia public school classrooms where they work with the schools and immerse themselves in the local communities. She also was a recipient of the Rodney J. and Vernell A. Reed Graduate Scholarship in Urban Education.
“The College of Education provided me with so many great opportunities to explore the different realms of education, and when I went to Kenya that is where I first started learning about international schools and schools in developing cultures,” Chow said.
Because of her experiences with the various student-teaching and volunteer programs at Penn State, Chow said she made up her mind that she wanted to work at an urban school with students from diverse backgrounds. It was her hope to stay in north Philadelphia after her student-teaching practicum ended, but fate had other plans.
“When I graduated, I would have loved to have stayed and taught in Philly but the year I graduated, Philadelphia School District was on a hiring freeze,” she said. At the same time, Virginia was experiencing a teacher shortage and teaching positions were in high demand, especially for special education teachers.
“I ended up teaching for Alexandria City Public Schools and Fairfax County for three years and I loved it because when I looked around my classroom, it was so incredibly diverse with kids from Pakistan, Vietnam, El Salvador and so many other cultures,” Chow said.
Taking an 8,500-mile ‘LEAP’
As her love for diverse classrooms grew so did her desire to be that representation that Schmidt described during her freshman year. And in 2013 Chow found herself at the start of a new teaching adventure in the Philippines — 8,516 miles from State College, Pennsylvania.
“The school I teach at here in the Philippines is called Faith Academy. It is a private, international Christian school and the majority of our students are here because their parents are working in NGO (nongovernmental organization) roles,” Chow said.
Faith Academy is a day and boarding school that enrolls students in grades PK (age 3) to 12 from multiple countries including China, the United States, Philippines and South Korea, among others. According to Chow, the number of students categorized as English Language Learners (ELLs) changes with the increase of non-English speaking passport countries represented. With those changes in diversity come changes to students’ needs as well, she said.
“One of the things our administrators started to notice was that our student population is really changing,” she said. “Twenty years ago, if you stepped onto our campus, most of the students would be from the United States or Canada. Now, we’re about one-third South Korean, one-third Filipino and one-third ‘other.'”
More than 500 students are enrolled at Faith Academy for the 2017-18 school year. Of the 139 students in the middle school, where Chow has served as an English teacher, about 13.5 percent of students are ELLs.
The school uses WIDA (World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment), an internationally recognized scale developed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin, to determine students’ English proficiency and measure language development. It consists of six levels with level one categorized as “entering” and level six identified as “reaching.”
“Our basic requirement is that students need to be in the three (“developing”) or higher range,” Chow said. “But as the student body started to change, we were seeing that we had to turn away so many students, some of whom have lived in the Philippines their whole lives.”
To adapt to the needs of prospective students, Faith Academy developed an intense, accelerated ELL program for students with limited English proficiency. The program, known as LEAP (Learning English with Academic Purpose), is headed by Chow and a multidisciplinary team of educators.
“It’s an amazing program and our ELL students are equally amazing,” Chow said. “They are incredibly motivated to learn and they’re very bright. It is kind of a matter of connecting the links and translating, which can be difficult when you are working with students who are Chinese because their native language is character-based and there are thousands of characters in their alphabet.”
LEAP welcomed its first cohort of 10 students last school year. This year, 14 students are enrolled in the program.
LEAP is designed for middle school-aged students in grades seven and eight because that is a “sweet spot” for students, Chow said. It is a time when Faith Academy first allows boarding and students prepare for the high-level academics of high school.
“The intention is to provide these students who have a very low English proficiency a very intensive English program that can boost them to the same academic level, language-wise, as our other students,” she said, adding that although the program is still in its infancy, they are seeing success and are continually evaluating it and making improvements.
A growing need
It is not just international schools that are seeing an influx of ELL students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the primary federal entity responsible for collecting education-related data, nearly 5 million public school students in the United States were classified as ELL in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Of those students, 14.7 percent were students with disabilities. Eight states report that 10 percent or more of their public school student population is ELL. California reported 21 percent, the highest of any state, followed by Nevada and Texas with 16.8 percent.
“As educators, we need to do better for our students instead of saying ‘sorry, we can’t,'” Chow said. “I’m proud to be part of a school that recognizes the changes of the student population so that we can say ‘yes, we can.'”
Chow also said that ELL and special education teachers need to be better equipped to take on the changing student population, and she credits the College of Education for the diverse learning experiences she was offered as a student that prepared her for her career as an international educator.
“Penn State has a really solid student-teaching program and it gave me the confidence to say that I can teach in multicultural settings,” she said, emphasizing her time in the Urban Education Seminar program. “Being part of that program is when I really began to notice the importance of honoring cultures, especially those that are different from mine, in order to help students learn best. I loved that student-teaching experience.”
The program also influenced her master’s thesis, which explored the research surrounding ELLs in special education.
“What I saw in the school in Philly was that with so many students, something was just off,” Chow said. “But what did I know? I was just a college senior and I didn’t have that training.”
Chow said she trusted her gut and knew the students weren’t being “reached,” but, at that time, did not have the skills to help those students.
“I felt so helpless in not knowing what to do to help these students,” she said. “The heart of a teacher is to be able to help all kids and when we see kids struggling, it is challenging.”
Now in her sixth school year at Faith Academy, Chow said she remembers that feeling whenever times get tough and she gets frustrated as an educator. But, she said, she is thankful that she now does have the training, as well as the educational backing from Faith Academy, to provide support so that her multilingual students are able to thrive.