Baylor University is considering a new undergraduate and graduate program for training bilingual educators in an effort to fill an increasing need in McLennan County, School of Education officials said.

The Department of Curriculum and Instruction is in the midst of a search for a senior-level faculty member to get the program off the ground and hopes to have it up and running by next fall, department chairman Larry Browning said.

“It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for a while, so there has been some talk in the past of what we were going to do,” Browning said. “It’s a big need. We don’t serve it at all. We did in the 1970s. We used to prepare bilingual educators here, about two a year. But it was two a year, so it went defunct.”

Browning has been with Baylor University for 41 years.

The program could also be the start of a larger vision for the School of Education, one that would build stronger partnerships with local school districts, including Waco ISD, by creating “centers for social innovation” focused on researching best practices in teaching and learning, associate curriculum and instruction chairwoman Brooke Blevins said.

“These are conversations that haven’t been fully fleshed out with our Waco ISD partners, but we know poverty is an issue. We know English language learning is an issue. We know literacy is an issue,” Blevins said. “How do we take the resources we have at Baylor and go into our local schools create centers for research and innovation where we’re trying new things? Our faculty are researching, and kids are benefiting because all this time and effort is being poured into these spaces. … That’s ultimately what we see happening, but that’s pipe dream. It’s going to involve a lot of people coming together and working together.”

Baylor’s student teachers already partner with Waco ISD, but to have a conversation about how to take that to the next level is difficult to when state officials tell school districts to close down struggling schools, Blevins said.

Waco ISD has five schools facing the possibility of closure this next year, if the schools don’t pass state standards in May. State law also gives the district a chance to come up with an alternative plan by February to repurpose the five campuses to keep them open another two years. Administrators are evaluating their options.

“You’ve got these expectations, and we’re saying, ‘Let’s try some new stuff, because we think this might work.’ ” Blevins said. “Does the superintendent have time or energy, or the risk-taking to want to do that?”

The five schools on the verge of closure are the same five schools Baylor is interested in working with, Browning said. Once Waco ISD finishes its discussion about the campuses later this school year, he hopes the School of Education can become involved in the next steps, Browning said.

Waco ISD started conversations with Baylor officials last year about the district’s need for more bilingual educators and the potential for a partnership to start next fall, said Grace Benson, director of Waco ISD’s English language learners department.

The district has 45 bilingual teachers, but that isn’t enough, Benson said.

“In the past, the district has had to recruit teachers and has had to go internationally (to do so),” Benson said. “If we had a program here, we wouldn’t necessarily have to do that. It’s always hard to find good bilingual teachers, but having that partnership means professors at Baylor can communicate with other scholars about education.”

The number of bilingual students in Waco ISD has decreased since 2011, but the number of students studying English as a second language has steadily increased, Waco ISD demographic data shows. The district went from 1,562, or 10 percent, English-as-a-second-language students six years ago to 2,070, or 14 percent, English-as-a-second-language students as of last school year. The number of students classified as having limited English proficiency has hovered between about 2,700 and 2,800 students for the last six years, the data shows. The district has about 15,000 students.

By developing more bilingual educators, the program could eventually open doors to more dual language programs and opportunities at the elementary level, Baylor officials said. For now, because the McLennan County area doesn’t offer a way to grow bilingual educators in its own backyard, the market for dual language programs isn’t being served, Browning said.

“There is a need. I have friends, neighbors, coworkers whose children don’t speak Spanish, who would very much like their children to grow up speaking English and Spanish, and that’s just one component of a bilingual program,” Browning said. “We talk a lot about the value to our society and to our economy of adults who are bilingual, but we don’t do a lot to develop that.”

Shelly Conlon has covered K-12 education for the Tribune-Herald since July 2016. Prior to the Tribune-Herald, she was the managing editor for the Waxahachie Daily Light, and an intern for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.

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