ACE program prepares educators for next generation of linguistically diverse students

Enl Hernandez Fellows Cohort Photo Summer 2022 Feature

As a mentor with the Latino Enrollment Institute, part of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at the University of Notre Dame, Christine Tax works with school principals to implement marketing and recruitment efforts aimed at boosting Latino enrollment in Catholic schools across the U.S. In doing so, she regularly promotes ACE’s ENL (English as a new language) Hernandez Fellows program, a graduate-level program that prepares Catholic educators to better serve non-English speakers across all grades and content areas.

But it wasn’t until she took a position at St. Matthew Catholic School in Phoenix — the only dual language (English and Spanish) Catholic school in Arizona — that she considered the program for herself.

“It wasn’t until I moved to this community that it hit me: We really need to make (ENL strategies) a priority for our school and our teachers,” Tax, the principal at St. Matthew, said.

Surrounded by motels and used car lots in a working-class area of central Phoenix, St. Matthew counts a large percentage of Spanish speakers among its student population — an adjustment for Tax, who previously worked as a teacher and then principal in less diverse schools in Arizona, at least language-wise.

“The students I’m primarily used to serving came in with a higher proficiency level (in English), whereas the students I’m serving now come to us with almost no English at all,” Tax said. “So there’s a very different level of proficiency.”

And so, this past summer, Tax took her own advice and joined the latest cohort of Hernandez Fellows.

In a word, she said, it’s been “phenomenal.”

“I can’t say enough about the program,” Tax said. “It’s phenomenal to be able to serve our Church this way, and it’s great being able to partner with Notre Dame to do it.”

She said she’s learning new things daily despite having already earned her ENL endorsement as a teacher and now administrator in Arizona for more than 20 years.

“I have what’s required (to teach English learners) in the state of Arizona, but I learned in week one (of the Hernandez Fellows program) that that’s not enough,” Tax said. “I’m learning way more than I ever learned.”

‘Not that complicated’

Tax is among 35 fellows currently enrolled in the program, which has served hundreds of educators over the past 17 years. For the first time, this year’s cohort includes two teachers from dual language schools. It also includes multiple teachers who are English learners themselves.

Selected for their leadership potential, the fellows participate in six graduate-level courses — two in the summer, two in the fall and two in the spring — designed to deepen their expertise in educating linguistically diverse students, including those for whom a language other than English is spoken at home.

“These lovely, incredible teachers teach all over the country,” said Katy Lichon, an ACE faculty member who also serves as director of the Catholic School Advantage and English as a New Language programs within ACE. “The only requirement is that they teach in a Catholic school and have English learners in their classroom.” 

Specifically, the fellows, including teachers and principals of all ages and backgrounds, learn to:

  • Implement teaching strategies and lesson modifications to support English learners.
  • Value the role of culture in the lives of students.
  • Practice culturally inclusive pedagogy.
  • Understand how to create and modify assessments to measure progress in language efficiency as well as content knowledge.
  • Recognize the way languages are acquired.
  • Identify effective ways to serve as resource people in schools.

The fellows also develop and lead a continuing education project and visit an ENL learner at home.

From a strategic perspective, “It’s not that complicated,” Lichon said. “Our children in our communities bring tremendous gifts and talents, and we are made better for them. We teach educators how to bring out those gifts and talents and incorporate them into the classroom.”

Esmerelda Elvir
Esmerelda Elvir

For Esmerelda Elvir, a former Hernandez Fellow who serves as director of student success for Bishop McNamara Catholic School in Kankakee County, Illinois, south of Chicago, it is deeply personal work.

A native of Mexico, Elvir immigrated to the U.S. with her family as a teen and, like many English learners, struggled to assimilate a new language and culture, contributing to confusion and conflict with respect to her identity as a Mexican American.

“I understand what students go through when they try to learn a second language; it’s really hard,” Elvir said. “Even today, I don’t have the phonemic awareness foundations (for English) because the way I learned was through memorization.”

Of the importance of dual language learning, Elvir said, “Language is part of your culture. Some cultures assimilate to the point that they lose their identity, they lose who they are. In my family, we value our language, we value being bilingual, and I feel like it’s important for students to realize it’s a gift to be bilingual, because I used to think when I was in high school, ‘Why am I Mexican? Why was I born in Mexico? I wish I was born here. I wish I spoke English.’”

She carried these questions into adulthood, she said, and only truly reconciled the conflicting aspects of her identity as a result of deep and prolonged study and reflection stemming, in part, from her time as a Hernandez Fellow.

“Going through the (Hernandez) program helped me realize the gift God gave me,” she said. “It offered me the opportunity to value what I have, and I want to share that with other people in my community. I want to share that with my students.”

Students who, increasingly, look like her.

“We are experiencing a large increase in the Hispanic population in our area,” she said, “and lots of Hispanic families are coming to our school.”

‘Tremendously prepared’

Beginning in the summer and continuing through the fall and spring, the Hernandez Fellows program is structured to accommodate K-12 educators’ busy schedules, particularly during the school year, when teachers’ days can last long past the final bell.

Hernandez Fellows In Class
Hernandez Fellows In Class

The three-week summer session begins with synchronous virtual classes and culminates with a one-week on-campus experience, providing fellows the opportunity to enjoy the enriching environment, beauty, and sanctity of Notre Dame and the full campus experience (residence hall life, dining halls, visits to the Grotto, walks across campus) as a group.

Fall and spring courses are online and asynchronous and consist of instruction, guided practice and assignments.

Of the on-campus experience, Tax, who visits Notre Dame regularly in her role with the Latino Enrollment Institute, said, “There’s something very special about campus. Being there and just being able to integrate faith in all you do is revitalizing.”

In the case of the Hernandez Fellows program, it’s also an opportunity for meaningful engagement with fellows from across the U.S. and Mexico. The program accepts two teachers each year from St. George’s College, a preK-12 school in Santiago, Chile, that is home to the ACE in Chile program.

“I met people that I’m in contact with now, and not just in class but socially on the side,” Tax said of her on-campus experience. “You go through your struggles together and celebrate your triumphs together.”

Fellows who complete the program earn ENL credits, which can lead to ENL/ESL/ESOL/ELL endorsements or help with initial teachers licensing or continuing education credits.

“They are tremendously prepared” to succeed as ENL instructors, Lichon said. “And more than that, it sets them up to be leaders in their schools and absolute advocates for their kids.”

Last year’s cohort, Lichon said, “had a 100 percent pass rate on the ESL certification exam.”

The true value of 18 graduate-level credits from Notre Dame is $50,000. Hernandez Fellows pay $11,000, plus books and travel expenses. A $2,000 fellowship, courtesy of Rick and Megan Hernandez, reduces that even further, to $9,000. Need-based scholarships, up to $2,000, are also available. The Hernandez team also assists with funding from Title II and III funds, church sources and local benefactors, among other sources.

Elvir, for her part, received support from the Diocese of Joliet.

High stakes

Established in 2005, the Hernandez Fellows program is a direct response to the changing face of education in the U.S. — specifically, the growing number of Spanish-speaking students in U.S. schools.

As a percentage of the overall population, Latinos and other minority groups have grown considerably over the past several decades, such that English learners are now the fastest-growing segment of K-12 students in the U.S. Naturally, this has led to a corresponding increase in demand for ENL instructors, particularly among Catholic schools, which have a long tradition of serving immigrant children.

The Church itself is also becoming more and more diverse. According to recent data, more than half of all young Catholics, those under 30, identify as Latino, and many speak a language other than English at home.

“This is the great legacy of Catholic schools, to serve immigrant children,” Lichon said, noting how Catholic parishes served as schools and community centers for groups of Polish, German and Italian immigrants, among others, throughout much of the 20th century.

And the stakes are high, Lichon said.

“English-learning children and Latino children are the future leaders of our country, they are our future doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors,” she said. “In order to ensure a really bright future for all of us, the stakes are incredibly high to help these children thrive. And not just thrive in English, but thrive in multiple languages, thrive in navigating multiple identities.”

To that end, she said, “It’s really beautiful that Notre Dame and ACE have made a commitment to get this right for Catholic schools.”

And with Catholic schools. Because, ultimately, it’s a team effort.

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Originally published by Erin Blasko at on September 29, 2022.