For eight years, Pablo Sanchez has interpreted for Spanish-speaking students, worked with new immigrants and kept order during hectic lunch periods.
Meanwhile, his bosses at the Riverside Unified School District have struggled with the booming numbers of students learning English
– and the tiny pool of bilingual teachers to educate them.
Sanchez, a Poly High School campus supervisor, once belonged to an army of non-teaching employees who speak Spanish but could not plug the shortfall.
Today, the final school bell signals the start of a second school day for Sanchez. He drives to California Baptist College, where he is studying to become a bilingual teacher for the district. And the district is picking up part of the price tag.
“How many opportunities do people get where you know you have a job coming out of school? ” Sanchez asked while munching on a sandwich in his campus office. “This is great. “
More and more, school officials are peeking under their noses to cultivate potential bilingual teachers they once overlooked. They are crafting Bilingual Career Ladder programs to send some bilingual employees back to school if they promise to teach their district’s English learners. Though many Inland-area programs are still in the infant stages, others have reaped the benefits.
The Fontana Unified School District has funneled 14 bilingual teachers into its classrooms since launching the program in 1989.
The success of Fontana’s ladder, the first of its kind in the Inland area, has been repeated elsewhere. For example, the Colton Joint Unified School District has produced 10 bilingual teachers in seven years.
Ladder programs groom employees that districts already know and trust. In turn, those employees know the district and have a stake in the community.
“I was born and raised in Colton,” said Diana Carreon, a program graduate now teaching at Bloomington Middle School. “To me, there isn’t a better place to work. ” Also, many potential teachers – sometimes former limited-English speaking students themselves – bring a special sensitivity to the job.
“We’re getting our own people that we know are here with our kids,” said Yolanda Crockett, personnel services coordinator for the Alvord Unified School District, whichserves western Riverside and part of Corona. “We want to get them into the classroom. “
Districts with ladder programs include Alvord, Colton, Corona-Norco, Fontana and Riverside. Other districts are considering starting one.
For non-teaching employees who qualify, the ladder is a chance to climb closer to a dream.
Some, like Graciela Patterson, were driven from college after a few years by high fees. Today, the office assistant at Riverside’s Jefferson Elementary School is studying through a ladder program at Riverside Community College.
“This was perfect,” Patterson said. “I knew I needed to finish school and here was someone saying, ‘Hey, we’ll pay for it. ‘ “
In California, the shortage of certified bilingual teachers improved by 10.5 percent last year, but is not near being solved, said Suanna Gilman-Ponce, a consultant in the state’s bilingual-compliance unit. The latest state data shows an estimated 34,000 teachers fluent in another language are needed to serve California’s 1.4 million students who are not proficient in English.
Inland-area ladder programs typically pay most of a participant’s college fees. In exchange, employees must sign a district contract pledging to teach limited-English speakers for the number of years they received support. If employees leave the program, they must reimburse the school district for any college fees paid.
Local programs mostly include Hispanics who are bilingual in Spanish. But ethnicity is not among the criteria. Instead, a candidate must show proficiency in another language. Slots in the programs are limited and districts usually give the nod to those who already have earned college units. Local programs range from five spots in Alvord to 25 in the Fontana Unified School District.
Financial support can range from two or three years to five years and usually covers work toward a bachelor’s degree, a teaching credential and bilingual certification. Many programs require participants to work as bilingual aides in their senior year as final classroom preparation.
Harvesting future bilingual teachers is not cheap.
In Alvord, the program costs about $ 12,500 a year or $ 2,500 per employee, Crockett said. That covers class fees and books, she said.
Four attend California State University, San Bernardino. One attends Riverside Community College. The program’s first graduate is expected next year to begin work toward erasing Alvord’s shortage of 70 bilingual teachers.
Riverside Unified offers $ 2,500 a year for its five employees studying at universities. Its seven community college student-employees receive $ 600 annually. The allowance covers most colleges’ fees, but not those at a UC campus or private university, officials said.
Ladder programs do not enjoy universal support.
In 1995, Alvord school board member Phil Stokoe cast the lone no vote on the program. Stokoe said again this week that he thinks the district should give interest-free loans – not free money – to potential bilingual teachers. Stokoe worries that employees could drop out and force the district to spend money in a legal battle for reimbursement.
“It becomes a gift of public funds,” said Stokoe, who added he supports efforts to increase the bilingual teaching force.
So far, one Alvord employee has dropped out but reimbursed the district without a problem, Crockett said.
Though participants love the program, it has changed life in many ways.
Sanchez, the Riverside campus supervisor, had to choose a private college that offered the necessary night courses. But more expensive fees forced him to take out loans to pay for the remaining three-fourths of his annual school fees.
Still, the burden is one Sanchez is eager to bear. He recalls his days as a scared 12-year-old from Costa Rica who learned English thanks to Riverside schools’ bilingual teachers.
“My experience may be a little different,” Sanchez said. “But at least I know the anxieties they’re suffering. “