Schools, Hispanic leaders at odds on bilingualism

Teachers' departures draw allegations of a lack of commitment; AISD officials disagree

Leaders of a Hispanic civil rights organization and school officials are at odds over whether the district is committed to bilingual education for Arlington’s growing number of Hispanic students.


Leaders of the Arlington Hispanic Advisory Council say the recent departure of three bilingual teachers underscores the district’s lack of commitment to bilingual education.


“Their performance records are lacking . . . ,” said advisory council member Juan Perez, also president of the United Hispanic Council of Tarrant County. “It’s a reflection of institutionalized racism.”


School administrators reject those allegations, saying bilingual education is one of the district’s highest priorities.


Dr. Denny Dowd, executive director of personnel, said that the district retains a higher percentage of bilingual teachers than regular classroom teachers and that only two bilingual teachers have left the district.


Hispanic students are “the fastest growing population in our school district, and we have hired more teachers for that one program over the past four years” than for any other specialized area, Dr. Dowd said.


The controversy over bilingual education is not an insignificant one for the district.


In recent years, the percentage of Hispanic students has increased 15 to 20 percent since 1991, school officials said.


And the district expects its Vietnamese student population to experience similar growth during the next decade. That would require the district to extend bilingual programs to those students.


Arlington created its bilingual education program in 1987.


The state requires school districts to offer programs to teach students in their native languages when those districts have at least 20 students who speak the same language in the same grade.


Nationally, there is a shortage of bilingual teachers, and in some states the shortage has reached almost a crisis, said Jim Lyons, executive director of the National Association of Bilingual Educators in Washington, D.C.


Regardless of size, he said, school districts across the nation are struggling with finding enough bilingual teachers to meet the growing demand.


Throughout the country, between 10,000 and 12,000 bilingual teachers graduate annually from colleges and universities – in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of regular classroom teachers who graduate every year, said Maria Medina Seidner, director of bilingual education for the Texas Education Agency.


As a result, school districts are competing to lure the small pool of bilingual teachers into their areas by providing signing bonuses and annual stipends, she said.


Greg Vaquera, founder of the Hispanic advisory council, said that Arlington’s failure to offer bilingual teachers a financial stipend has hurt recruiting efforts. And when bilingual educators come to the district, he said, officials aren’t offering enough support to retain them.


“There are a lot of quality teachers out there who the district can recruit,” Mr. Vaquera said. “Arlington will be affected by the lack of bilingual teachers by the simple fact that the student dropout rate will increase. If you have teachers who are not sensitive or qualified to teach these kids, it’s difficult for them to survive.


“They will drop out, and one thing will lead to another, and they’ll end up in gangs. So, you either pay now or pay later. It’s as simple as that.”


Hispanic students have the highest dropout rate in the district.


The district’s overall dropout rate is 1.6 percent. The Hispanic 3.1 percent dropout rate nearly doubles the district’s average.


Mr. Vaquera said the advisory council’s concern about bilingual education was triggered by the recent departure of three bilingual teachers.


Many bilingual teachers are frustrated and tired of what they perceive to be the district’s failure to promote bilingual programs, he said. As a result, he said, at least three bilingual teachers have left the district this year for other area school districts that do offer monetary incentives.


Dr. Dowd disputes those assertions. He said he knows of only two bilingual teachers who have left the district.


One left, he said, because she was relocating out of the area.


He said he was uncertain why the other instructor left.


School officials insist that those recent departures don’t represent a trend.


Malcolm Turner, who specializes in recruiting minority teachers for the district, said he personally hired four bilingual teachers this week.


“Our jobs as professionals is to educate children and not to please the community,” Mr. Turner said. “There are so many interest groups stressing a need for an increase in student role modeling.


We do what we can within guidelines to attract those teachers.”


The school district’s bilingual student-to-teacher ratio also exceeds the state average of 20-to-1, according to statistics provided by school officials. The district says it has 68 bilingual teachers and 1,200 students – a 17-to-1 ratio.


Mr. Turner said the district hired 25 of those 68 teachers under an emergency certification program this year to keep up with the growing Hispanic student population.


Leaders of the Hispanic advisory council question the accuracy of those figures.


“I need to verify those figures to see the rosters, to see where all those teachers are at and to see if the ratios are met,” Mr. Perez said. “They could claim a lot of things, but unless we verify them, we can’t say, Yes, this is happening.’ ”


Mr. Vaquera said his group expects to meet with school officials this summer to resolve the conflict surrounding the district’s figures. If the two sides cannot resolve their dispute, he said, he will ask the U.S. Justice Department to mediate.


Unlike some districts, Arlington doesn’t offer financial incentives to bilingual teachers because officials think the district’s priority should be raising salaries for all teachers, school board President Carlton Lancaster said.


“There are a lot of areas where it’s difficult to find teachers, such as science, math, foreign language and special education,” he said. “As we address the salary schedule this summer, our priority should be to increase the salaries in all areas to attract the best teachers in all areas.”


Mr. Lyons and local Hispanic leaders said they think that financial incentives are necessary.


“Stipends are a tangible recognition that these teachers are needed and bring something special to a classroom,” Mr. Lyons said.Still, with federal and state cutbacks in education, additional pay for specialized teachers is a challenge for school districts, state officials said.


“School districts have a lot of fiscal burdens. There are a lot of school districts that can’t afford stipends,” Ms. Seidner said.


“This has to be something that a school district decides must be important to it.”


Opponents of bilingual education say that taxpayers should not be burdened with the cost of supporting a program in which students learn in languages other than English.


“It’s an absurd waste of government’s money,” said Thomas Lenihan, a former Carrollton City Council member who in 1994 sponsored an unsuccessful measure to adopt English as the city’s official language.


“Are they teaching German for German kids? Are they teaching Japanese for Japanese kids? No, they are not. Bilingual education is a means of accommodating one segment of our society,” Mr. Lenihan said. “I don’t think taxpayers should put their faith and hope that they will learn English if there is no incentive to learn English.”


Some experts say monetary incentives are still a means to attract bilingual teachers. For instance, Dallas offers a $ 1,000 signing bonus for certified bilingual teachers plus a $ 3,000 annual stipend – both of which were an increase over last year’s package.


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