Los Angeles’ highly lauded magnet schools are finding themselves in a Catch-22 situation: They are under increasing pressure to hire more bilingual teachers but can’t pay them as much as regular campuses with higher minority enrollments.
A districtwide shortage of bilingual teachers, coupled with the fact that they can receive a $5,000 bonus at regular schools with higher minority enrollment, has led to stiff competition among campuses. And most of the magnets, long considered the gems of the school system, are joining the race without the financial incentive.
“I have had some of the finest bilingual teachers pass through here, but they’re on their way to schools where they’ll get paid $5,000,” said Greta Pruitt, the principal at 32nd Street/USC Performing Arts Magnet near Downtown.
“You keep trying to build the idea that the focus of the magnet is good enough to draw them from the additional salary,” Pruitt said.
At stake for the magnet schools is continued political support for the program. In agreeing to expand the magnet program by 24 schools — including 10 in the San Fernando Valley — the Board of Education last week required all magnets to hire more bilingual teachers and to recruit more non-English-speaking students.
The magnets offer a specialized academic program with integrated classrooms and a hand-picked staff. Nearly one in three students who apply will get in this fall.
“Parents think these schools are the best choices for their children,” said Leticia Quezada, the school board president. “There are parents of all ethnicities who want their children to have the best education they can. This is part of making our schools accessible to all our students.”
Districtwide, officials say they have had trouble attracting qualified bilingual teachers. There are 3,500 bilingual teachers in the school system, but officials say they need about 2,500 more. In addition, just 169 work in magnet schools, district records show.
“Bilingual teachers certainly have some leverage now,” said Jesus Limon, a bilingual teacher and coordinator at San Fernando Elementary School. “But I think most people would be more apt to stay where they’re making more money. Personally, I wouldn’t want to take a pay cut and continue to do the same work.”
To encourage more bilingual teachers to apply to Los Angeles schools, the district agreed six years ago to offer a pay differential — $5,000 if they work in schools designated as predominantly minority campuses and $1,000 if they work in others.
Hiring fully qualified bilingual teachers is a problem for all schools throughout the Los Angeles school district — and throughout California.
“Within our budget constraints, we are going up and down the state trying to recruit bilingual teachers,” said Ben Lujan, who oversees the district’s teacher recruitment and selection division. “It’s a fierce competition within the state.”
While most magnet schools enroll more than 60% minority students, they are not considered to be predominantly minority — a formal designation that is given to other schools with about 90% minority pupils.
Quezada and others acknowledge that bilingual teachers in the nation’s second-largest school system are in high demand because of the increasing number of students who can’t speak English. Of the district’s 640,000 students, nearly 280,000 — or 44% — speak limited English. Of the 37,000 who attend magnets, nearly 3,000 — less than 10% — do not speak fluent English.
“The schools that have them (bilingual teachers), don’t want to lose them,” said Ann Hill, the magnet coordinator at Granada Hills High, which has a math, science and technology magnet center. “It absolutely is difficult.”
By all accounts, the competition for bilingual teachers will be even worse next year. In a settlement with the teachers union, the district has decided to stop paying bilingual teachers the $5,000 bonus next year at 50 schools — primarily in the San Fernando Valley and West Los Angeles. Because those schools have fewer students who don’t speak English than in previous years, the district decided that it could no longer justify giving those teachers the extra money.
The teachers will, however, receive the $1,000 district bonus.
As a result, two bilingual teachers at Chatsworth Park Elementary, for example, have decided to leave the school district in part because they will no longer receive the $5,000 bonus.
To obtain a full, bilingual credential, teachers must take extensive courses. The district hires teachers who have portions of the full bilingual credential, but they do not receive the full bonus pay.
Principals throughout the district say they are recruiting bilingual teachers, but they do not want to undercut each other. In addition, some board members and others say they fear that siphoning off the bilingual teachers from regular schools will mean fewer bilingual classes.
“It’s a tough problem,” said board member Jeff Horton, who favors reducing the number of white students who can be admitted to magnets to increase the number of minority students. “But the whole idea of magnets has something unfair about it to the extent they drain off active teachers, involved parents and motivated students.”
Magnet schools, which have a waiting list of more than 23,000 students, are considered to be the gems of the school system. When Granada Hills High, for example, began its magnet center last year, the school received 60 applications from teachers for seven positions. Only a couple were bilingual teachers.
The magnets’ biggest draw is the fact that the students — and their parents
— choose to attend. Principals say that they have an active group of parents and students, and that the teachers’ morale also is higher than at regular schools.
“The incentive to teach at magnets is great,” said Assistant Supt. Amy McKenna, who oversees the instruction division. “But I imagine it will be tough recruiting” bilingual teachers.
Barbara Gee, the principal at Vintage Magnet in North Hills, said she hired a bilingual kindergarten teacher who left after a year to work in a school where she could receive the $5,000 bonus.
“The money is an important issue,” Gee said. “It’s a problem not only in the magnet schools but in all schools.”