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PIONERAS named a 'Program to Watch'

A Texas Woman’s University program dedicated to helping improve instruction for Spanish-speaking English language learners has received national recognition for the third consecutive year.

Project PIONERAS, which helps current and future bilingual educators improve their teaching by improving their bilingual skills, has been named a “Program to Watch” by Excelencia in Education, a national, not-for-profit organization aimed at accelerating Latino student success in higher education. Its “Programs to Watch” designation highlights innovative programs that are making a positive impact on the success of their Latino students.

PIONERAS (Professional Improvement through Optimization of Native-language Education and the Realization of Academic/familial Symbiosis) developed from a $2.2 million federal grant to support teachers of students who are learning English. Holly Hansen-Thomas, principal investigator of the grant and vice provost of research and innovation at TWU, said many bilingual teachers or teacher candidates are native Spanish speakers and, although they have been raised with Spanish as their first language, they often are unfamiliar with its rules and grammar because they haven’t learned it in an academic setting. Bilingual programs historically strived to transition students to all-English classes early in their school years, she added.

PIONERAS provides university coursework for current teachers and offers scholarships to help them complete a graduate degree. For pre-service teachers, their coursework includes an intensive Spanish language course in Costa Rica, with native Spanish-speaking teachers.

“We have gone twice, for three weeks each time,” Hansen-Thomas said. “It has really helped the students’ language. It’s given them confidence, practice and insight.”

A third component of the project supports parental involvement in their children’s education. A Spanish resource library in the TWU Libraries provides information to enable families to make informed decisions about their children’s education. Family engagement activities, such as a Literature and Music Night in the Denton Independent School District, were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hansen-Thomas said the activities that were held received positive feedback from participants.

Hansen-Thomas believes the cohort aspect of PIONERAS contributes to its success.

“The students take classes together, then study abroad together,” she said. “There is a community that is cohesive and collegial. All of the participants in the undergraduate group are Spanish-speaking Latinas but are from diverse backgrounds. That adds a lot to the collaborative nature of the group.”