L.A. May Remove Hurdle For Immigrant Teachers

Los Angeles Unified School District officials, seeking to ease a shortage of bilingual teachers, are proposing that foreign-born college graduates be eligible to teach in California for five years while they learn English.

The proposal would allow prospective teachers to take a state teachers exam, known as the California Basic Educational Skills Test, in their native language. A passing score on the exam, now given only in English, is required to earn a state teaching credential. The test has proven to be a stumbling block to many prospective teachers from other countries.

Teacher applicants who pass the foreign-language version of the test would be eligible for a five-year credential allowing them to teach immigrant elementary school children, said Los Angeles school board President Jackie Goldberg, who is pushing the idea.

“There are a lot of educated immigrants, but right now there is no way to get them in the classroom,” Goldberg said. “These are people who can pass a standardized test in Armenian or Spanish, teachers who could be in the classroom if they could just pass the CBEST.”

The proposal is being discussed informally with staff members of the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Alice Petrossian, who was chairwoman of the commission for 10 years until she stepped down nine months ago, said the proposal is likely to be hotly debated in the state Legislature as part of the issue of bilingual education.

In Los Angeles, where about 35% of the district’s 610,000 students speak only limited English, district officials estimate that it will take at least 10 years to hire the number of bilingual teachers needed.

The district has about 192,000 Spanish-speaking students who are learning English and another 21,000 who speak one of more than 80 other languages, officials said.

Statewide, about one in six students is fluent in a language other than English.

The shortage of bilingual teachers in the Los Angeles district comes despite an entry-level salary approaching $35,000 a year for those who pass state bilingual proficiency tests. The district expects to hire 500 or so bilingual teachers by fall, far short of the total needed, officials said. Another 2,000 teachers are taking Spanish lessons through the district to become bilingual and earn a $5,000-a-year raise, officials said.

“For a while, foreign-born kids are going to have to bring their teachers with them because the reality is that we can’t get enough to meet the changing demands of our students,” said Ronald Prescott, the district’s chief lobbyist.

Under the proposal, those who pass the CBEST in a foreign language and meet all other state requirements, including a four-year college degree, could teach in bilingual classrooms, where students are taught most academic subjects in their native language and study English only part of the day. Those teachers would be assisted by English-speaking aides and would be required to pass the CBEST in English within five years.

But the idea has already drawn fire from Los Angeles teachers union officials who say teachers not fluent in English should stay out of the classroom.

“It’s horrible,” said Helen Bernstein, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, the union representing teachers in the district. “The CBEST is not that difficult of a test to pass and if someone cannot pass it, they should not be a teacher.”

Bernstein said the new credential would lower teacher standards and ultimately hurt students trying to learn English.

The CBEST measures proficiency in math, reading comprehension and writing. But many foreign-born people seeking to become teachers in California say they have had difficulty passing the essay portion of the test.

“I took it nine or 10 times over two years because of the essay part,” said Bertha Cano, who was a teacher in Mexico for 15 years and is now a teacher at Menlo Avenue School in South Los Angeles.

Past experience with foreign-born teachers recruited to teach in Los Angeles has been mixed so far, said Mike Acosta, the district administrator responsible for hiring teachers. The district has hired about 70 teachers from Spain over the past three years and have another 35 who will start work in the fall.

“In general, the principals were happy with them and the majority have been good for the children,” Acosta said. “Some had trouble adjusting. They knew the language but had to learn the culture.”

Most of the teachers from Spain were hired under a special State Department of Education program that grants foreign-born teachers a one-year credential. After the year, the teachers must pass the CBEST to continue teaching. Many have returned to Spain because they could not pass the test after one year, state education officials said.

Officials of the Paramount and Lynwood school districts said they are pleased with the teachers from Spain they have hired. But the Garvey Elementary School District in the San Gabriel Valley dropped the program two years ago after complaints from some parents and community members. In addition, foreign-born teachers had trouble passing the test.

“No. 1, these people needed to speak English because that is what we ask of our regular credentialed teachers,” said Ofelia Gutierrez, supervisor of the Garvey district’s bilingual education program.

The International Education Research Foundation, which is based in Los Angeles, reviewed the transcripts of about 6,000 foreign-born teachers seeking work in California during 1989, said the firm’s associate director, Jasmin Saidi. Of those, about 1,000 met the state requirements and would be eligible for a state credential if they passed the CBEST, she said.

Victoria Munoz Richart, dean of academic affairs at Los Angeles Mission College, said the two-year college has collected the names of about 350 foreign-born teachers, mostly Latino, who are pursuing their state teaching credential.



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