Teaching assistants in Umatilla County will soon have another education option for themselves — if a pair of area educators get their way.

The program is the brainchild of Cindy Lenhart, department chair for the education program at Blue Mountain Community College, and Becky Stearns, English language learner resource specialist at the Umatilla-Morrow Education Service District.

Beginning in summer or fall 2011, the two plan to begin to offer courses leading to a language development certificate, which would help teaching assistants — or “paraeducators” — better connect with students whose second language is English.

Lenhart said classes in the certificate program would be designed, not for primary teachers, but for those assistants, many of whom play significant roles in classrooms.

Stearns said the courses would give educators the chance to gain a head start on the school year by providing real, specific strategies for assistants.

She also said they could teach best practices for translators in conferences or day-to-day classroom assistants working with children juggling multiple languages along with regular coursework.

“Those kids are in regular core-content classes, but they’re expected to keep up with the rest of the kids,” Stearns said.

She added that hundreds of students in western Umatilla County communities are part of a second-language population that stands to benefit from the certificate program, which is a close cousin to a previous successful program at BMCC.

Starting in the fall 2010 semester, the school offered an autism certificate to educators that taught the specialized knowledge and skills that Lenhart said are necessary when working with autistic learners.

This winter, she said, the school recognized a healthy demand for the online classes and will offer them to anyone in the community — educators, parents, friends — starting in the new semester, Jan. 4.

Lenhart said the English language development certificate will probably also be online, though the classes have yet to be approved and everything is in preliminary stages.

Since its start in 1997, and through major partnerships with Eastern Oregon University, Lenhart said BMCC has grown to become an attractive option for many hopeful teachers in the area.

“School districts are always looking for ways to provide professional development to their staff,” she said, adding that BMCC and Eastern Oregon University in LaGrande have an entire bachelor’s degree pathway.

A person could begin classes online and at the Hermiston campus, she said, and finish a few years later with the farthest necessary drives heading to Pendleton.

“If people want to become a teacher, this is a great way to do it,” she said.

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