News Release

UCF researchers receive $2.6 million grant to equip English-learner educators, students for success

The federal funding will allow the team to implement a three-pronged, research-backed approach to bolster English learners’ academic success and family and community involvement.

Grant and Award Announcement

University of Central Florida

By Danielle Hendrix ’15

ORLANDO, Feb. 2, 2023 –Between an influx of school-age Spanish-speaking students relocating to Florida and the state’s ongoing teacher shortage, the need for evidence-based educational practices benefiting English learners is greater than ever.

It’s a resource gap that four UCF researchers hope to help fill through a new project called the English-Learner Infused Training and Experience Program for Early and Primary Learning Educators (ELITE).

The work is funded by a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of English Language Acquisition.

According to the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, 60% of Spanish-speaking students who recently moved to Florida from Puerto Rico have settled in the greater Central Florida area. Of those, 40% are being served by local district schools.

Meanwhile, statistics from the Florida Education Association show that the state is dealing with 5,294 teacher vacancies and 4,631 noninstructional vacancies.

The Project ELITE team is comprised of researchers from UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education and College of Arts and Humanities. The team will take a multifaceted approach to provide educators across three school districts — Orange, Pinellas and St. Lucie — with professional learning and individualized coaching to address key instructional practices that promote school readiness, literacy and achievement in English learners from volunteer prekindergarten (VPK) to third grade.

It will also equip the educators with the tools to advance family and community involvement in a culturally and linguistically responsive manner.

“The impetus for the project was the need to support teachers as they’re working with English learners academically, but we also need to support them as they are working with English learners’ parents, families and the community,” says Marjorie Ceballos ’00 ’06MPA ’16EdD, principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education. “Our focus is to help provide teachers with tools and research-based practices that they can use in the classroom to advance English learners’ literacy and academic achievement.”

Florin Mihai, co-principal investigator and professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, says there is an academic achievement gap between English learners and non-English learners since the former face the challenge of simultaneously learning language and academic content.

“If we equip English-learner teachers in VPK through third grade with research-based tools that will accelerate English learners’ language acquisition, enhance their language proficiency and develop their literacy, their academic learning will significantly improve because they will concentrate on academic content acquisition unhindered by limited English-language proficiency,” Mihai says. “We want to focus on language and literacy development in the earliest years possible to ensure a successful school experience for our English learners all the way to their high school graduation.”

The project has a three-pronged approach to achieve its goals. The first is to prepare 220 highly qualified teachers, paraprofessionals and educational leaders who work with English learners in the Central Florida area through a 72-hour ELITE Professional Learning program.

The initial cohort of roughly 30 scholars will begin the program in Summer 2023, with four additional cohorts — each comprising between 40 to 50 scholars — to follow through 2027.

The second involves increasing parent, family and community engagement through developing and implementing Bilingual Village and Parent Ambassadors programs at 10 schools in the partner districts.

The Bilingual Village partners with local businesses that employ bilingual staff, giving English learners and their families an opportunity to practice both their home and second languages in a supportive environment. Meanwhile, parent ambassadors actively support their English learners in school and help promote school or district programs, services, events and activities to other English learners’ families and community members.

“When families and communities are involved in education, students benefit tremendously,” Mihai says. “We want to make sure that the learning continues at home and in the community.”

The third approach focuses on sustainability and maintaining the pipeline of transitioning project materials and resources to the partner school districts.

This will be accomplished by training 40 of the project alumni who will continue the program within their school districts via a 36-hour Train-the-Trainer program. Doing so will equip each school district with the knowledge and resources needed to maintain the professional learning program beyond the lifespan of the grant.

“All of these different components are major contributors to increasing English learners’ achievement,” Ceballos says. “The Professional Learning, the Bilingual Village and the Parent Ambassadors (programs) all are inputs to help support English learners in our schools and communities. Each one helps strengthen those bridges between the school, families and the community.”

Educators in partner districts interested in participating in the program should contact Ceballos at

Research Team Credentials

Ceballos joined UCF in 2018 as an assistant professor of educational leadership in the Department of Educational Leadership and Higher Education. She earned her bachelor’s in social science education, master’s in public administration and doctorate in educational leadership from UCF. She has received over $2 million in training grants.

Mihai is co-principal investigator and professor of teaching English as a foreign language in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, which he joined in 2006. He earned his doctorate in multilingual multicultural education from Florida State University.

Joyce Nutta is co-principal investigator and professor of English for speakers of other languages education in the School of Teacher Education. She earned her doctorate in second language acquisition from the University of South Florida. Nutta joined UCF in 2007 and has received more than $7 million in research and training grants.

Vassiliki Zygouris-Coe is co-principal investigator and professor of reading education in the School of Teacher Education. She received her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Florida and has been a faculty member since 1999. She has received over $9 million in external funding.

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