In an unprecedented exchange, the Mexican government has donated 40,000 new Spanish textbooks and is sending 20 bilingual teachers this fall to the Los Angeles Unified School District to aid students who speak little or no English.
The textbook donation, valued at about $500,000, is particularly prized by local bilingual educators, who have a limited supply of Spanish-language books for elementary school children. And the gift comes at a time when the cash-strapped school district has frozen some textbook funds.
“The signing of this agreement sets a new precedent for a working relationship with Mexico,” said school board President Leticia Quezada. “It is clear that the country is concerned about the needs of students of Mexican ancestry and officials want to contribute to their education.”
Anaida Colon-Muniz, director of bilingual education for Santa Ana Unified School District, said she began preliminary talks in January with officials at the Mexican Consulate to launch a similar program in the district, Orange County’s largest and one in which two-thirds of the students have limited English skills. Those talks are ongoing, she said.
“I think it’s great if L.A. Unified has begun to do something formally with the Mexican government,” Colon-Muniz said. “It’s a great opportunity, not only in terms of the services for students who require instruction in Spanish, but also in terms of improving the relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. Nothing bad could come out of two countries working together for the benefit of children.”
Colon-Muniz said the donation of Spanish language textbooks to Los Angeles is valuable not only because school budgets are tight, but because books from Mexico can boost students’ pride and self-image by reflecting the culture of their homeland.
A two-year loan of teachers would be greatly appreciated in Santa Ana, she said, where the district has said it needs about 200 more bilingual-education teachers in Spanish and 50 in other languages, as well as scores of aides. The district currently has more than 200 bilingual education teachers and another 200 or so who are fluent but have not yet obtained their bilingual-education credentials, Colon-Muniz said.
But the Los Angeles agreement was criticized by Gloria Tuchman, a school board member in Tustin Unified, which offers no native-language instruction for its immigrant pupils. Tuchman, a first-grade teacher in Santa Ana and a Latina who is fluent in Spanish, said she believes that teaching Spanish-speaking pupils in their own language does them a disservice because it delays their acquisition of English.
“If this program (in Los Angeles Unified) is supposed to teach English, I don’t think it will get the job done,” Tuchman said. “We’re going about it backward. We should be teaching English. I am a strong proponent of multilingualism, but teaching in the native language doesn’t teach English fast enough.”
Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Mexico’s secretary of education, said that Mexican teachers who come to Los Angeles for two years will study the district’s reform plan and American education practices and take on leadership roles when they return to their schools in Mexico.
Quezada said the textbook donation will have an “incredible immediate benefit” for Spanish-speaking students. She said there is a limited selection of Spanish-language textbooks from American publishers, making it difficult for the district to purchase large quantities in a number of subjects.
In Mexico, the federal government publishes and owns all schoolbooks. Until now, bureaucratic red tape has made it impossible to obtain texts from Mexico, Quezada said. Last March, Quezada, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 13, traveled to Mexico, in part to seek access to books and bilingual teachers.
Quezada and Zedillo said they hope the agreement, signed at a Monday morning ceremony in Los Angeles, will be expanded to bring more Mexican teachers to the district and open a student exchange program.
“The concern of the Mexican government in the area of education encompasses all Mexican children, including migrant children,” Zedillo said. “Certainly, the action taken today is quite modest, but undoubtedly it will encourage greater efforts.”
He said the books Mexico is sending are designed to improve Spanish reading and writing skills and are basic primers in math, science and ecology. Some series emphasize the history, geography and customs of Mexico.
“We hope these collections will . . . instill greater pride on the part of the Mexican-American community, and the Hispanic community in general, (in) their origins and culture,” Zedillo said.
About 65% of Los Angeles schoolchildren are Latino. Nearly 280,000 students have limited English skills, with the vast majority being Spanish speakers. The school district’s bilingual education policy calls for students to be taught core courses such as math and science in their native language until they become proficient enough in English to succeed in regular classrooms.
But there is a severe shortage of Spanish-speaking teachers in Los Angeles, prompting the district to pay bilingual instructors an annual bonus of about $3,000. The Mexican teachers are experienced instructors who are fluent in English and passed a condensed version of the California Basic Education Skills Test — which all public school teachers are required to take — and must pass the full test within a year. Most will be assigned to elementary schools.