El Monte District Struggles To Find Bilingual Teachers

Faced with a Nov. 1 deadline, the El Monte City School District is struggling to comply with a state order to rectify its severe shortage of bilingual teachers or lose $3 million in supplementary state funds it gets for having a high percentage of students who speak little or no English or are academic underachievers.

The district — which serves 10,675 students in kindergarten through eighth grade in El Monte, South El Monte and Temple City — was told by the state Department of Education on Sept. 24 that it was violating state guidelines governing bilingual education by having less than half of the minimum 118 bilingual teachers required for its more than 3,000 limited-English-speaking students.

“We’ve been out of compliance forever,” said Susan Bierman, the district’s assistant superintendent of instruction.

“But we didn’t know the full extent until we met with the state,” Bierman said. “Instead of moving closer to compliance, we’ve been moving further away. We didn’t know the situation would reach a crisis, but it did.”

The $3 million represents 10% of the district’s $30-million budget, said Jerry Buchanan, assistant district superintendent of business.

The state audited enrollment figures earlier this year to determine whether the district complied with a 1980 law that requires school districts to provide a bilingual class if they have 10 or more students who are classified as limited English proficiency (LEP). The classes must be provided for students who speak the same language and are in the same grade level.

Teacher Shortage

The state found that the district, which is more than 60% Latino, should have at least 118 bilingual teachers, based on a formula that requires one bilingual teacher for every 20 LEP students.

The school already had 41 bilingual teachers, leaving the district 77 short, said Susie Lange, public relations director for the state Department of Education.

The district is going ahead with its effort to comply with state law despite Gov. George Deukmejian’s veto last week of legislation that would have extended bilingual education programs until 1992.

The governor has ordered a study to determine the cost-effectiveness of bilingual programs and will re-extend them if they are found to be a workable method of teaching students who do not speak English.

“We’re not looking for a quick, short fix,” Bierman said. “I don’t want to see the same problem surface next spring. By next September, I can see us 100% compliant.”

The district is exploring several ways of rectifying the shortage, including enrolling teachers already on the payroll in courses that will lead to bilingual certification or pairing bilingual teachers with monolingual instructors.

“I don’t see hiring new teachers as an option,” Bierman said, citing budget constraints. She added that district officials favor bilingual training for teachers already on the payroll.

Bierman said that teachers who opt for bilingual training, dubbed “waivered teachers,” may teach bilingual classes before they are certified but must be assisted by a bilingual aide.

“What we’re looking at is hiring additional people as bilingual aides for the waivered teachers,” she said. “We’ll have to see how much money is available for this.”

“El Monte got itself caught,” said Chuck Acosta, bilingual education
consultant for the Los Angeles County Office of Education.

Whereas the state formerly had been lax in following up on letters sent to districts informing them of non-compliance, Acosta said, it now is aggressive in its monitoring.

No Requirement

Acosta said that one reason El Monte is having problems is because colleges do not require future teachers to take bilingual courses, which cover methodology, culture and language, to get teaching certificates.

Nor do bilingual teachers make more money, according to Ben Campos, director of state and federal projects and bilingual education for the El Monte district.

“Our present system doesn’t provide any incentives to have teachers become bilingual,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, president of the California Assn. for Bilingual Education.

“The whole system needs to be overhauled,” she said. “There needs to be more support for the teachers who work an entire day, then go and sit for evening training classes.”

Seeking Incentives

Spiegel-Coleman said that her organization is working to establish an incentive program, which would include time off.

“We’re very supportive of teachers on waiver, but we want to create an atmosphere of support, not stress,” she said.

District officials met with representatives of the El Monte Elementary Teachers Assn. shortly after the order was received to discuss the problem, sparking rumors that the state might withhold the paychecks of teachers unwilling to sign up for bilingual training.

“To hear you might not get a paycheck is very frightening and produces anger, confusion and questions,” said Susan Matchett, president of the 500-member teachers’ union, which is affiliated with the California Teachers Assn.

Protection Promised

“But we were assured by Dr. Bierman that the district would protect all teachers should the paycheck issue ever come up in El Monte. I feel comfortable the district will be good to its word,” Matchett said.

“We’re not close to (withholding paychecks),” said Bierman, “but we’re taking serious, drastic action in a timely fashion so we don’t reach that point. It’s the toughest problem we face, but we’ve made progress.”

Bierman also said that there would be no attempt to transfer teachers who refuse training to non-bilingual classes.

“There will be no major shake-up in the district,” she said.

Matchett said that the district has offered incentives to teachers who sign up for the training, including free instruction in a district classroom and free materials for setting up the classroom.

Not a New Concept

“The waiver concept is not a new one,” Matchett said. “Teachers have always had that option if they chose. It deeply concerns our teachers that the district is so out of compliance.”

The district also has promised teachers that they will not be coerced into signing waivers, Matchett said.

“Teachers are supposed to have freedom to choose whether they want to sign a waiver,” she said.

By last week, district officials said that 38 teachers had signed up for the waiver program.

Budget Shortage

Bierman said the district must work within its current budget to remedy the shortage. She said it has has enough money to comply, provided it can use several options in solving the overall problem.

“We were worried about having to use the waiver approach only because of the need to hire an aide for each waivered teacher,” she said. “As a long-term solution it’s fine, but for the short term it’s too costly.”

And finding qualified aides is also a problem, Bierman said.

“The burden falls on the district to find the teaching and the training. We would rather work with the resources we have and recruit from our own ranks.”

Team Teaching

In addition to training teachers, the district is also considering team teaching, under which a bilingual teacher would work with a monolingual instructor.

“With the team-teaching option we can multiply the effectiveness of the credentialed teacher and actually decrease the number of credentialed teachers needed by 50,” Bierman said.

Another option, which would not require a bilingual teacher, would focus attention on LEP students who have tested at a near-fluency level and attempt to raise their skills so that they can be reclassified as fluent.

“With these options, we’d have to show the state that some of our LEP’s needs are being met in a different way,” Bierman said.

Concentration in Primary Grades

Most LEPs are in kindergarten, first grade and second grade, she said. Typically, they are reclassified as fluent after the third grade.

School district officials believe they can meet the Nov. 1 deadline by getting more teachers to sign up for training and getting the state to approve the other options.

“We’re definitely motivated to comply. This crisis has mobilized the district to solve a problem that needed to be solved,” Bierman said.

“We will usually work with a district to meet the requirement,” said Lange of the state Department of Education.

She emphasized that state officials believe the district is making efforts to correct the shortage. “We’re working with them to reach that,” Lange said.

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