School officials are looking south of the border to ease the critical shortage of bilingual teachers in Riverside County schools.
The Riverside County Office of Education hopes to recruit teachers from Mexico by helping them enroll in Cal State San Bernardino’s teacher education program and finding them jobs in local school districts.
About five teachers are scheduled to arrive in August from schools in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, which is about 200 miles from Mexico City.
Riverside County Superintendent Dave Long came up with the teacher recruitment idea after setting up an exchange program for teachers and administrators when he was superintendent of the Lake Elsinore Unified School District.
He and his wife, Jo Melillo-Long, a principal in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, adopted their daughter, Angelica, from an orphanage in San Luis Potosi. While visiting the orphanage, Long toured some local schools.
“The first classroom I walked into was a second grade, where the teacher spoke English and the kids responded in English,” he said. “I thought, ‘Whoa, there’s some things we can learn here.’ “
Long said he developed many friendships while his staff and teachers from the Instituto de Cervantes private school in San Luis Potosi visited each other’s countries to trade cultural lessons and teaching techniques.
Mavis Schutz, activities director at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore, made the trip to San Luis Potosi in November. She said she left with a better understanding of what school was like for many of her immigrant students.
Schutz and four other Lake Elsinore teachers stayed with families during their two-week trip. They spent one week observing teachers in the Instituto and another week touring schools around the country.
One school they visited in a rural area had four students. The teacher had a high school education, but said if she stayed there for two years the government would pay for her to earn a college degree, Schutz said.
They also saw opening ceremonies that take place in schools every Monday. Schutz said her Lake Elsinore students who went to Mexican schools remember the weekly events, where the honors students were allowed to hold the flags.
“It’s really positive because it gives us insight into the culture, especially in California where we have so many Hispanic children,” she said. “We have a better awareness of the type of education our immigrant students have had. I think it will help us design programs to help them adjust to the new culture.”
Long said comments like that spurred him to expand the exchange program to more schools in San Luis Potosi and Riverside County when he was elected county schools superintendent. He also believed it could be used to recruit teachers.
In April, Long visited with San Luis Potosi Governor Fernando Silva Nieto and top education officials. He was joined by William Kroonen, a Riverside County trustee and College of the Desert president, and Patricia Arlin, dean of Cal State San Bernardino’s school of education.
Long said, at first, Potosi officials worried that Riverside would steal their best teachers.
“They said, ‘Look, what you’re really saying is you’re coming here to take our best and brightest to come back to your county and live forever,’ ” Long said.
But Long said he responded with statistics — about one-third of the county’s students are Hispanic and about 40,000 of those students are still learning English.
“I said, ‘What we’re really talking about is having teachers come to Riverside County from San Luis Potosi to teach your children,’ ” Long said. “They understood that. That was a bit of a turning point.”
Other school districts and county schools offices, including several in Texas and California, have set up teacher recruitment and exchange programs with Spain and Mexico in the past 10 years.
Some, by design, are short-term commitments.
Money set aside to educate children of migrant farmworkers pays for teachers from Mexico to travel to Monterey and Sacramento over the summer and teach cultural and academic lessons. Joe Mendoza, director of migrant education for the Ventura County superintendent of schools, said the program links students with teachers from areas they live in Mexico so when they return they know a teacher.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is one of about a dozen California districts that recruit teachers from Mexico for three-year stints. The teachers work in Los Angeles schools and may work on master’s degrees, but must return to Mexico after three years, said Antonio Garcia, director of certificated recruitment.
About 30 to 40 new teachers arrive each year, Garcia said. He said teachers that leave before the program ends usually are those who can’t pass the state’s basic skills test.
But Garcia said exchange programs will not solve the state’s shortage of bilingual teachers because, “it’s not like we get thousands of teachers.”
Other districts have found that teachers recruited for long-term stays often leave and return home after a couple of years.
Schutz said that after visiting Mexico, she believes it is a culture shock for teachers to move to California.
“They’re very family oriented and it’s too far way from their families,” Schutz said. “Culturally, I think it would be an adjustment for them.”
But Long said he believes San Luis Potosi teachers will feel at home in Riverside and stay “forever.”
While the teacher program was being designed, the idea of an exchange program for business leaders also came up. Long travelled back to San Luis Potosi in November with county Supervisor Roy Wilson to set that up.
Wilson said the existing relationship between the two communities made it easier to generate interest in a business exchange. And he said besides the strong personal relationships, the two communities also have a natural economic connection.
“The Hispanic economy is very important to the eastern county in particular, but throughout our county,” Wilson said. “This, I think, sparked an interest or a camaraderie with these folks.”
The first two businessmen arrived early this month as part of the educational exchange between the two communities and a group of about 10 are expected in April.
“I just really have a strong belief you cannot talk about business success or the success of the county without talking about education also,” Long said. “We have to look at those three entities of being supportive of each other.”
The first visitors from San Luis Potosi said they felt an instant camaraderie with Riversiders. Eugenio Torre Valero, director general of Yunsa, and Luis Manuel Jimenez G., who handles exports for the ceiling-tile manufacturer, spent two days meeting architects, contractors and international trade educators in Riverside.
They said they enjoyed people’s friendliness, felt they made strong business contacts and enjoyed touring several education programs. They also mentioned the Mission Inn as one of the highlights of their trip.
“We were overwhelmed,” Jimenez G. said. “We’ve travelled many places, but we haven’t found people like those we have found here.”
Valero, who helped build a private school in San Luis Potosi, said he also is looking forward to seeing more teachers from his area travel to Riverside.
“Anything we can learn from you will help,” he said.