Principal Connie Smith keeps a stack of Spanish-language textbooks on a windowsill behind her office desk, not for students but for herself.
As the head of Springdale Elementary, a Fort Worth school with a student population that is 59 percent Hispanic this year, Smith is hoping to communicate better with students and parents alike. “I need to be fluent,” Smith said. “That’s something I have to work at. “
In the past four months, the Hispanic population at Springdale, just north of downtown Fort Worth, has grown by 11 percent. The increase is mirrored across the district, where Hispanics represent 38 percent of the student population and are the largest ethnic group for the third consecutive year.
As the proportion of Hispanic students grows, so does the number of those students who speak limited English; 19 percent of Fort Worth’s 76,000 students have limited English skills, double the number 10 years ago.
In Arlington, the Hispanic student population is now 17 percent of the 53,000 students, said Charlene Robertson, Arlington schools spokeswoman.
“It is growing,” Robertson said, but the district doesn’t appear to be headed for a majority Hispanic status any time soon.
At Speer Elementary School in central Arlington, where 393 of the campus’ 758 students are Hispanic, the Arlington Hispanic Advisory Council successfully lobbied the district for a principal, Linda DeLeon Bellile, who is both Hispanic and fluent in Spanish. Members of another group, Image de Arlington, are also campus partners.
The shift in ethnic composition has created a language barrier between teachers and some of their students and parents. To overcome it, the district is providing classes to teach teachers both to speak Spanish and to present lessons in that language.
In addition, recruiters in Fort Worth and outlying cities are also trying to hire more teachers with bilingual and English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, training. The state requires districts to provide bilingual education when there are 20 students speaking one language in one grade level.
But such teachers are hard to find, district officials said.
“There’s just a lot of competition out there for them,” said J.D. Shipp, assistant superintendent for personnel. Texas vies with California and Florida as the states most in need of bilingual teachers. For the past two years, the district’s largest bonus – up to $ 4,000 – has gone to newly hired teachers certified in bilingual education.
A recent mandate from the U.S. Office of Civil Rights to Fort Worth requires it to restructure its bilingual and ESL programs to make sure students aren’t bounced between English- and Spanish-based classrooms from year to year. But that federal order has put added pressure on the district to find more ESL and bilingual teachers. At schools with the greatest need for ESL-certified teachers, any teacher without the training has been – and will continue to be – transferred to other campuses if he or she doesn’t obtain such training.
In a bilingual classroom, the academic subjects are taught in Spanish, and the teachers must be proficient in the language. In ESL classrooms, teachers focus on teaching children to speak English, and they generally do not speak Spanish. Bilingual teacher training takes more time than ESL training.
Fort Worth could use 100 more ESL teachers and 30 to 40 more bilingual teachers than it has now, Shipp said. Currently, the district has 250 bilingual teachers and 634 ESL teachers.
Common sense tells the school district that if it doesn’t properly educate limited-English speakers, the community will pay the price.
“From a pragmatic point of view, we have an increasing Hispanic population that must be successful if we expect them to contribute to the economy,” said Ramon Magallanes, the Fort Worth district’s director of bilingual/ESL programs.
Student bodies at elementary schools on the Near South Side such as Worth Heights, Hubbard Heights, South Fort Worth and George Clarke have all grown from 50-60 percent Hispanic 10 years ago to 70-80 percent Hispanic now.
The Polytechnic Heights neighborhood has “literally exploded” in its Hispanic student population, Magallanes said. Elementary schools such as T.A. Sims and D. McRae have gone from 20 percent to more than 60 percent Hispanic in seven years.
Other Hispanic communities are forming in west Fort Worth, in the area around Mary Louise Phillips Elementary School, which has more than 230 students with limited English skills out of a student population of 580.
But many teachers don’t have the time to return to school for the additional certification requirements, said Ginger Shackelford, president of the Fort Worth Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
“A lot of the teachers have families, and they don’t always have time to go back and get extra classes,” she said.
Suburban school districts, too, are feeling rising pressures from the growing number of Hispanic students who speak little English.
In the Birdville school district, where about 10 percent of the district’s 20,350 students are Hispanic, 580 students were in bilingual or ESL programs during the 1995-96 school year. This year, officials estimate that 120 more students will need bilingual or ESL instruction, though the district doesn’t have final figures.
The majority of those students are Hispanic, although the district also has large numbers of students who speak Vietnamese and Laotian.
Birdville has 19 ESL and bilingual teachers, two of whom work part time. But it needs more, said Wanda Ballard, Birdville coordinator for foreign language programs.
“We’ve added one this year, but we’ve appealed for more,” Ballard said. “But so far, we’re having to make do with what we have. “
The Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district, where 10 percent of the district’s 19,500 students are Hispanic, has faced pressure from Hispanic civil-rights groups to hire more minority teachers and professional staff overall, and more Hispanics in particular.
The district hired 14 Hispanic employees for this school year, eight of whom are professional staffers. One is a bilingual speech therapist.
In a report issued in June, a Hispanic relations committee appointed by the H-E-B school board recommended that the district set a goal of making 30 percent of its new hires minorities. It also called for staff training in ethnic sensitivity, adding multicultural lessons in the classrooms and hiring more bilingual teachers. The group also recommended that the district hire a full-time coordinator for the ESL and bilingual programs. The current coordinator also has responsibility for the district’s social studies and foreign language departments.
The district is close to fulfilling that recommendation, Superintendent Ron Caloss said. However, most qualified bilingual educators are either teachers without administration experience or principals who would have to take a pay cut to become teachers again, Caloss said.
Among the county’s smallest school districts, the same trends and concerns prevail.
Steady growth of Hispanic students to 11 percent of the White Settlement district’s 4,370 enrollment led school officials to add a second ESL teacher to accommodate about 40 elementary ESL students this year, Assistant Superintendent Paulette Lane said.
The Castleberry district, primarily in River Oaks, added bilingual education to its curriculum last year to meet the state requirement when its student body of 3,200 – 22 percent Hispanic – included 20 first-graders with limited English proficiency, Superintendent Jerry Cook said.
But the Lake Worth district, where Hispanic enrollment has steadily grown to 32 percent of its 1,700 students, has received state permission for the past two years to substitute intensive ESL classes for bilingual education because it can’t find certified bilingual teachers for its 174 ESL students, Superintendent Klaus Driessen said.
All three districts print key parent information in Spanish and English. Lake Worth has programmed its telephone answering system for Spanish and English.
And Castleberry officials now include Hispanic parents on campus committees under an agreement mediated by Justice Department officials in 1993, Cook said.
Staff writers Bill Bowen, Jessamy Brown and Martha Deller contributed to this report.