On paper, Evelyn Jimenez is not yet a teacher.
But for the past year, Jimenez has been at the helm of her own bilingual kindergarten class at Ansgar Larsen Elementary School in Oxnard.
And if Jimenez appears to have the confidence and craft of an experienced teacher as she stands amid 32 youngsters, it is no surprise.
She has been in the classroom for 10 years. As a teacher aide–a para-educator–she spent countless hours in one-on-one instruction with Spanish-speaking students. She taught them English, tutored them, mentored them and tested them. Now, she teaches them.
“She is a darn good teacher,” said Maria Godinez, herself a para-educator with 23 years of classroom experience. “She knows what she is doing. She is better than a lot of professionals.”
Para-educators, who for years were regarded as classroom secretaries, are increasingly becoming important figures in the classroom. And many districts, hoping to address a severe shortfall in bilingual teachers, are encouraging bilingual aides to pursue teaching credentials.
A study released in April by Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a Massachusetts research group, concluded that training bilingual aides was the best way to increase the ranks of bilingual teachers, particularly in poor and inner-city areas where the needs are greatest.
“They already have the primary language and the methodology,” said Frances Contreras, director of educational projects at the Hueneme Elementary School District, where Jimenez teaches.
Jimenez has an emergency teaching credential that was requested by the district because of the shortage of bilingual instructors. By the end of June, she will be done with her student teaching, the final step toward her teaching credential. While most student teachers work under the guidance of a certified teacher, Jimenez’s emergency credential gives her full control of her class.
With the teacher-recruiting season in full swing, school administrators are scrambling.
“It is very difficult to find qualified bilingual teachers,” said Kent Patterson, associate superintendent of the Oxnard School District. “The demand is much greater than the supply.”
In an average year, about 1,000 new bilingual teachers, or about one teacher per school district in California, are certified statewide, Patterson said.
The Oxnard School District’s needs “through attrition and growth are for about 20 to 25 bilingual teachers per year,” Patterson said. “Our ability to fill those needs is nearly impossible.”
With about 12,000 bilingual teachers in California, the state needs an additional 20,000 to adequately serve the 1.25 million students who speak little or no English, according to officials at the state Department of Education.
There are about 350 bilingual teachers in Ventura County, and an additional 185 bilingual teachers are needed, said Paula Lovo, who runs the teacher-aide training program at the County Superintendent of Schools Office. The program is funded by a $ 110,000 state grant.
Certifying just a fraction of the more than 600 bilingual para-educators working in county classrooms would greatly reduce the shortage of bilingual teachers, Lovo said.
The county program finds teacher aides who are already pursuing their teaching credential at community colleges and Cal State Northridge, then provides extra incentives and tuition, making it easier for the low-paid aides to complete their credentials.
Jimenez, a mother of two, is one of a handful of graduates helped by the county program, which paid her tuition for four semesters. Without the help, Jimenez said, she would have had to continue as an aide while attending college part time.
The county is also encouraging existing teachers to become certified in bilingual education. But training bilingual aides has additional benefits.
Para-educators often have deep roots in the communities they serve and can create an essential link between the classroom and the community, according to the Recruiting New Teachers study.
At Sheridan Way Elementary School in Ventura’s west end, a group of para-educators agreed.
“I know these kids,” said Teresa Cornwell, who has been an aide at Sheridan Way for two years. “I know their brothers and sisters.”
Cornwell and fellow para-educator Norma Delgado are both 21. They attended Sheridan Way, where Principal Trudy Arriaga was their Spanish teacher. They went on to De Anza Middle School and Ventura High School.
“These kids play at West Park, which is where I went when I was a kid,” Cornwell said. “Two of them are my neighbors. They see me driving by. They see me at church and at the grocery store.”
Cornwell, a junior at Cal State Northridge, plans to become a teacher.
“I thought about teaching before, but I wasn’t sure,” Cornwell said. “Once I started working in the classroom, I decided I definitely wanted to teach.”
Delgado is a Ventura College student who hopes to attend Cal State Northridge next year.
Parents, too, feel more at ease with para-educators they know, Cornwell said.
“My mother is friends with a lot of my students’ parents,” she said. “A lot of Hispanic parents who are shy about talking to teachers feel comfortable with me.”
Educators say aides who are part of the community can better understand the needs of their students as well as serve as role models for them.
With the battle over bilingual education heating up in Sacramento, local supporters of bilingual teaching fear that funding for programs such as the one operated by the county schools office will be cut.
On May 17, a dozen educators from local districts shared their concerns with Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos), who has introduced legislation in Sacramento that would ease state mandates on bilingual education.
Without the help of such programs, the transition from aide to teacher can be a long one.
“Sometimes, teacher aides get discouraged, because it seems like it takes forever,” said Gloria Garcia, a first-year bilingual teacher at Sheridan Way. Garcia was a para-educator for five years. She was raising two sons and going to school in the evening.
“I’ve learned so much from being in the classroom that I could have never learned from a book,” Garcia said. “I don’t think of this as my first year.”