Supporting Students and Educators

Dr. Catherine Collier is a leader in the fields of cross-cultural, bilingual, and special education, with more than 40 years of experience as a classroom and resource room teacher, diagnostician, researcher, and the director of a teacher-training program specializing in certification of bilingual paraprofessionals at all teaching levels.

Dr. Collier currently is the director of CrossCultural Developmental Education Services (CCDES), a company offering support and professional development opportunities to community organizations, departments of education, school districts, teachers, and parents. In this exclusive interview with Colorín Colorado, Dr. Collier discusses her background in ELL, bilingual, and special education, as well as some of the ways these fields have changed during her career.

How did you get involved in the field of ELL educator training?

I took a very unusual path. I was a cognitive anthropologist back in the 1960s, working on linguistics, and I was actively involved in civil rights activities. Because of the "ivory tower" attitude in the field of anthropology at that time, however, I didn't want to continue working in that field. I got involved with some Navajo young people in an Upward Bound program that redirected me into education, even though I had not been focused on the education field at the time.

I ended up teaching for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. People don't know about the situation that faced the Native American populations at that time. Languages were dying and being suppressed; once you start working in an area like that and you are caught up in such an intense situation, it can totally change your life. My first teaching experience was in a small Navajo community. We were given ESL books that had been designed to teach ESL overseas in the 1930s. It was such an old, out-of-date system, and totally useless for what we were trying to do. These were Navajo-speaking children, and most had never been in schools — most were still living in traditional hogans.

During this period, educators were forced to look at issues of English language (EL) acquisition through a lens of hegemony in U.S. schools, which was not the lens that I felt was appropriate with my students. Since I came at EL acquisition from a completely different angle, I saw it differently than other teachers, and I became a much more involved community activist as well as educator.

What kinds of language instruction programs were being used at that time?

The only extra funding for bilingual programs — I've always been an advocate of bilingual education — was Title I money when the program was new in 1968. I was the Title I director of a boarding school, and I used that money to cobble together a bilingual ESL program. There weren't bilingual program models at that time. I was what was called a "beginner" teacher — students we refer to today as "newcomers." None of my students knew English and had never been to school. Kids stayed with me over a couple of years until I felt they were ready to go into regular classrooms. Other than in my classroom, no one was doing any accommodations at that point.

What kinds of results did you have in your program?

I spoke some Navajo and used it in EL and content area instruction, and I can say that my program was very effective. Kids were making gains of one and a half years in one school year in their English language development and their content acquisition as measured on English language standardized tests. But I also had these kids that didn't move on, and I began to ask myself: Who are these kids? That added special education to my path. I was concerned about them, so starting in 1970 I was doing bilingual special education as well. Leonard Baca at the University of Colorado's Bueno Center, who is often considered the godfather of bilingual special education, was one of my mentors.

How did his mentoring influence your career?

Leonard had pulled together a group of folks across the country to address the unique issues of limited English proficient students who had learning and behavior problems. This included Alba Ortiz and James Yates at the University of Texas, Austin, Herb Grossman at San Jose State University in California, Phil Chinn then of California State University, LA, Bruce Ramirez (currently the Executive Director of the Council for Exceptional Children but then the Assistant Director of Government Relations), and others. Working with Leonard and this group of incredible people changed the direction of my career. Not only did Leonard take me on as a doctoral student in the barely existing field of bilingual special education, but he exemplified how a college advisor could be caring, nurturing, and provide creative facilitation of research in a field with very little in place. We have continued to work together and I consider him a good friend as well as the model of what a college professor should be for his graduate students.

You continued working on special needs and bilingual education in Alaska. Tell us about more that.

I went to Alaska while I was working as a diagnostician and school psychologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, looking for children with special needs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta region. This was initially for a Child Find program and then as an itinerant. The school district had a demonstration grant from the federal government, one of the very first primary language programs, using Yup'ik Eskimo, started by Jim McDiarmid. The structure of this program would now be called a type of transitional bilingual program. I was fascinated with this living example of what I had just sort of cobbled together in the Navajo area. Additionally the BIA didn't pay me for an entire year, so I left my position and started working with the teacher preparation side of this Yup'ik program at Kuskokwim Community College in a joint program with the University of Alaska system. I wrote and got funded two consecutive additional Title VII grants to implement the teacher training end of the language program. I started with 30 Yup'ik speaking participants in 1976 and eventually had 330 by 1981.

This was an incredible program focused on preparing teacher aides to become the primary instructional professional in the schools implementing the Primary Yup'ik Program. They had to give the teacher assistants training in bilingual and primary language instruction as well as ESL. It was a very dynamic program, often called "womb to tomb," in that it took Yup'ik-speaking adults with little formal schooling, helped them get a GED high school equivalency, then an AA to get them onto track for a bachelor's degree. I became the director of the program. I'm very proud to say that I was recently giving a keynote speech in Alaska, and met some of my graduates who are still teaching in local schools. Some are involved in a dual-language school in Bethel, Alaska. In fact, they have met their AYPs for two years running.

What are some of the changes you have seen in these fields throughout your career?

I have to admit that I sometimes feel like I am a walking history for bilingual and special education and LEP student services. Service options for limited English speakers have come a long way since the 60s; bilingual education components have had their ups and downs and Special education wasn't part of teacher training until late in the 70s early 80s. Until Bruce, Phil, Leonard and Alba and colleagues started to address the convergence between special education and bilingual education in the late 70s/early 80s the unique needs of these children was largely ignored or subsumed within special education programs as "handicaps".

What led you to starting the CCDES?

Through my work with the BUENO center, I realized that the few universities involved in the research in this area could not wholly address the great need for assistance for limited English speaking kids with learning and behavior problems. In 1987, I started my own company, designed to help educators, parents, and schools work together and get the professional development training they need to support students. Even today there are only 12 universities licensing bilingual special educators, 4 universities licensing bilingual school psychologists, and scattered programs preparing teachers to work with EL students with mixed results; back then were even fewer. Our focus is on ESL, LEP and Special Education issues, particularly in interaction and within the context of the family and community.

What else are you working on now?

Among other things I'm also teaching at Western Washington University, and I teach ESL licensure classes. I applied for and received a Title III National Professional Development grant called CIRCLE, and one of its goals is that "all of the teacher graduates of Woodring College of Education at WWU will be comfortable and confident in providing effective instruction to culturally and linguistically diverse learners in their classrooms." We look at dual-language programs, cultural components, culture shock - all the tools we can incorporate to prepare these teachers. I have elementary, secondary, and special educators in the courses as well as administrators and program specialists.

We also are overseeing massive faculty professional development efforts, and not just for ELL educators. We are serving small, highly impacted districts with very diverse language situations and we now have waiting lists for these efforts because there is a tremendous need for this kind of support. The school districts we work with have been wonderful. We don't expect all of our participants to get licensure, but our classes are open, and administrators are taking the classes too.

What kind of immigrant population do you have in the area you are serving?

This is a big agricultural area, although now most of the migrant communities are in Eastern Washington with the orchards. We have a more settled immigrant population based on long-term agriculture in the North Western part of the state. Also we were a resettlement point in the 1970s for Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as for a large Russian-speaking population in the 90s. Many of the Russian-speaking immigrants here are not highly educated, and are refugees and Christian minorities out of Russia and Ukraine. So there is a great need for support and education, but the people are so motivated. We also have a significant population of Punjabi speakers, who again, are affiliated with farming activities. Our Spanish speakers tend to be of Guatemalan and indigenous heritage from Central America, and there are also indigenous communities, such as the Nooksack and Lummi.

So you have these small rural suburban school districts that can be highly impacted in several schools. It is an extremely challenging environment, and currently we are lucky to have even one ELL specialist in each district. Our partner districts' goal is to have as many teachers as possible cross-trained. Here are some quotations from district administrators about their need for the training provided through CIRCLE:

  1. We have deepened our belief that we have to go to line instructional staff in professional learning communities.
  2. We are more deeply committed to all staff being participants in teaching diverse learners including LEP. We will never meet the need by relying on one ELL teacher.
  3. We will never have enough ELL teachers or aides so we need to increase the capacity of all staff.
  4. We need to change how we use our specialists — move to more of a coaching model. We need to change our service structures.
  5. We need to have these skills and this expertise stay within the district and not bleed or seep out of the district.


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