Language Barrier Bilingual Education in Fresno Schools

Second of two parts

Lasara Nunez holds the knowledge and credential to teach kindergartners in Spanish, but 11 years ago she decided to use only English in the classroom.

She was overwhelmed by the pressures of teaching in two languages.

She was tired of getting no support from her Fresno Unified principal and the district’s top administrators and the School Board.

And she was troubled by the district’s unwillingness to pay more for extra work, or even recognize bilingual teaching as a special and needed skill.

Her concerns are shared by many other Fresno teachers who are advocates for bilingual education in theory, but believe Fresno Unified has failed to make any meaningful attempt to make it work in practice.

Authorities inside and out of the district say it has been asleep at the wheel on the bilingual issue, and now the district stands to lose millions of dollars if it does not respond quickly to state and federal reviews scheduled to begin next month.

To put its bilingual program in order, the district is already trying to get bilingual-credentialed teachers like Nunez back into bilingual teaching.

It’s a formidable task: Of 131 district teachers qualified to teach bilingual classes, only 50 are doing so.

Teachers like Nunez say that while the district has made substantial improvements in some schools, it still needs to get organized and to find a way to recognize and reward bilingual teachers.

At the same time, the district is facing resistance from other teachers who oppose efforts to train them to deal with non-English speakers.

“A lot of teachers are worried, and I feel strongly against what is going on, ” said Willie Clark, an art teacher at Tioga Middle School. “We have a problem, . . . and we have more students needing bilingual services than we can provide.

“These teachers don’t exist anywhere on the planet.”

Teachers’ opinions

Many teachers flatly say bilingual education has no place here, and that English should be the language of schools in this country, state and city.

Most of the district’s credentialed bilingual teachers speak Spanish, but Fresno Unified needs 154 more. The real struggle is finding teachers who speak Hmong, Lao, Vietnamese and Khmer.

Many who have given up bilingual teaching say they relate to Nunez’s frustration with not having the materials and support enjoyed by their English-speaking counterparts.

They get no extra pay for hours spent translating what they have just said in English, because the teacher’s union will not bargain for a pay increase until other teachers with specialties — like teaching the developmentally disabled — get the same raise.

That stance has led some to label the union as anti-bilingual.

Administrative support

Other teachers say the lack of administrative support has been the biggest obstacle to a sound bilingual program in Fresno.

“Some administrators will never accept it,” said Margarita Villareal, a first-grade teacher at Calwa Elementary School. “You almost feel like you are in the ocean trying to swim, and someone is holding your arms back.”

Villareal no longer teaches in Spanish, but says almost 50 percent of her 33 pupils are Spanish speakers.

Manuel Nunez, president of the Fresno school board, said former district officials were not as supportive of bilingual efforts, but current leaders are “trying to take away the bad experience.” His wife, Lasara, used to be a bilingual teacher.

Administrators are trying to get people like Villareal back into classrooms needing bilingual teachers. Some could be reassigned as early as May, Nunez said.

That news has prompted some teachers to threaten to give up their bilingual credentials if they are reassigned to bilingual classrooms or other schools against their will.

At Balderas Elementary in southeast Fresno, teacher Doris Buffo said she was overwhelmed when she transferred from a school in northwest Fresno where almost every child spoke English to one with the largest Hmong enrollment in Fresno Unified.

“When I walked into it, I hadn’t a clue what to do,” she said.

She tried keeping her non-English-speaking pupils busy with puzzles, flashcards and other distractions while she taught. It didn’t work.

“The basic thing is when LEP (limited-English proficient) students first come into your classroom and they’re sitting there, you just have to let them sit, and if you give this kid as much to do as possible, he’ll do all that stuff but he won’t be listening to me talking,” she said.

‘Sheltered’ English

But her students showed marked improvement in learning ability while being taught in “sheltered” English — or elaborate sign language-type gestures.

At Balderas, pupils are also tutored by other children who speak their native language. Some authorities say that cannot compare with the success of teaching children in their first language, and schools must do everything they can to provide such instruction.

Fresno Unified’s marked increase in pupils who don’t speak English — the current total is 24,000, four times as many as a decade ago — has already forced teachers to learn new ways to present lessons.

More visual aids

They are using more visual aids, creating special lessons and spending more time trying to adapt to students’ needs.

That has angered and worried teachers who fear they may lose their jobs if they don’t retrain themselves.

“There’s any number of teachers who are saying, ‘I’ve got a few years until I retire, and I’ve taught in this district for 30 years, do I really have to do this (retrain myself) or will I lose my job if I don’t?’ ” said Gerald Anderson, president of the Fresno Teachers Association.

Other teachers are worried that pupils who don’t speak English will be segregated into other classrooms.

Teachers don’t agree among themselves on how to teach non-English speakers, said Estella Reyes, a teacher at Balderas Elementary. Reyes, a certified bilingual teacher who does not teach in Spanish, said district administrators had been slow to provide direction for bilingual programs.

Information is coming out in bits and pieces, she said, through drafts of master plans and special training sessions held for principals and bilingual teachers.

Florentino Noriega, the district’s associate superintendent for educational services, said some teachers were likely to feel uninformed because so much information had to be distributed to so many schools and administrators.

He said people with concerns had a responsibility to seek answers.

Anderson of the teachers’ union said he believed administrators were trying to scare teachers instead of leveling with them about the future of teaching in Fresno.

Not-so-new issue

But the talk is not all that new, Anderson said. Bilingual education, its practice and its politics have spent years in the education spotlight.

“Among teachers, this issue is No. 1,” he said. “In general, people are misinformed, and it could be a divisive issue, but we’re saying let’s look at the big picture, and let’s be reasonable.

“The teachers we have today are the same ones we will have in the future, so we must work with that population, and provide them with the skills needed to do their job.”

Since not enough qualified bilingual teachers are available — particularly Southeast Asians — most schools are encouraging teachers to become certified as “language development specialists.”

Educators say that kind of specialized training helps when the desks are filled with children who don’t understand the words spoken by the teacher.

But many teachers have balked at going back to school to take a 45-hour training session and test to become certified to teach children who don’t speak English.

The state and federal reviews of bilingual programs planned to begin next month could translate into even bigger changes for Fresno teachers if the district is found to be too far out of compliance.

Administrators say they are willing to do whatever it takes to show that they are complying with state and federal laws that require children to receive a basic education no matter what language they speak.

Issue of progress

Until then, dozens of Fresno schools will make do with inconsistent language programs for children who don’t speak English. The effect is devastating for thousands of children, said Mayfair Elementary Principal Al Sanchez.

Rose Patron, who teaches in the Department of Early Education and Literacy at California State University, Fresno, said true progress would come when society’s attitude toward bilingual education changes.

“I think we have to reform our entire educational process, because if it just continues to be a classroom here and classroom there, it’s really just the same insanity of doing the same old thing, the same old way, with the same attitude and expecting something different,” she said.

“Attitudes have to change first.”

Comments are closed.