Area Lags in Hiring Bilingual Teachers

Schools: A shortage of certified instructors is shortchanging students with limited skills in English, educators say

Even with school officials making far-ranging recruiting trips and offering bonuses to qualified prospects, Ventura County districts still lag behind the rest of the state in hiring certified bilingual teachers.

According to the latest figures compiled by the California Department of Education, the county’s 20 school districts have only 315 certified teachers for the nearly 22,000 limited English speaking students enrolled in bilingual education programs.

The county’s ratio of 69 students for every certified bilingual teacher is worse than the state’s 61-to-1 ratio — itself considered unacceptably high by critics of bilingual education.

Statewide, as many as 20,000 additional certified teachers are needed to adequately staff bilingual education programs, experts say. County districts have to compete with districts all over the state for available certified bilingual teachers.

But the demand greatly exceeds the supply.

“California colleges and universities are producing 900 graduates a year in bilingual education, and we have 1,000 school districts in the state,” said Kent Patterson, assistant superintendent for the Oxnard Elementary School District.

Some county districts are faring better than others in hiring certified bilingual teachers. Among the large districts, Ventura Unified has the best ratio of students to teachers at 36 to 1, while Oxnard Union, with the second-highest number of limited English-speaking students, has the worst ratio at 229 to 1.

Critics and supporters of bilingual education agree: The shortage of certified bilingual teachers is shortchanging students and denying them the same educational advantages as mainstream students.

“Bilingual students are being under-served,” said David Dolson, a bilingual specialist with the state Department of Education.

Although county school districts bolster their bilingual education staffs with teachers-in-training and aides, certified teachers are considered the key to the program because they relate to the students in both language and culture.

“To have an effective program, you need certified teachers with the same ethnicity and the same culture as the students,” said Robert Serros, a bilingual education teacher at Channel Islands High School.

A school within a regular school, bilingual education programs are supposed to teach core courses in students’ native language so they can keep pace with their mainstream peers. Students also learn English, and when they can speak English fluently and satisfy other criteria, they’re transferred into regular programs.


According to Dolson, state studies show that if a bilingual education program is fully implemented — meaning a student-teacher ratio of about 30 to 1 — the students who advance into the school’s regular program have more success than mainstream students.

“But if the program is not fully implemented, we have data to show that the students don’t do as well,” Dolson said.

Critics, however, contend that bilingual education will never work. A recent report by the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state watchdog agency, called California’s bilingual program “divisive, wasteful and unproductive” and blasted the Department of Education for forcing schools to recruit hard-to-find bilingual teachers while bilingual students “have been cast adrift.”

Some educators favor another approach to educating non-English speakers: Students are given intense English lessons for part of the day and spend the rest of the time in mainstream core classes.

In Ventura County, only Conejo Valley Unified takes this approach. Along with four other districts in California, Conejo received permission from the state by showing that its program was at least as effective as bilingual education.

“Our Board of Education’s philosophy is that it’s critical for these students to get conversant in the English language as quickly as possible,” said Assistant Supt. Richard W. Simpson.

One advantage of the Conejo approach is the abundance of teachers with certification to teach English to foreigners. But experts say there is a disadvantage — students can lose touch with their cultural heritage and forget how to speak their native language.

The kind of program offered in the district has “no ties to the culture” of the student, said Cliff Rodrigues, director of bilingual education for the county superintendent of schools office.

“If you’re not teaching a kid to speak his language, and you’re not paying attention to his culture, the kid devalues himself because he thinks he’s not worth anything,” he said.

But Conejo Valley officials say this is not the case. “We don’t ask them to give up anything,” said Claudia Spellman, a district administrator. “We ask them to share their culture with us.”

Conejo Valley has only three certified bilingual teachers and 10 teachers who are certified to teach English to the 1,000 English-deficient students in the district.

While bilingual teachers trickle out of college, non-English speaking students flood into the state. Since 1987, the number of students enrolling in the state’s bilingual programs has doubled to 1.1 million.


In the county, 93% of bilingual education students speak Spanish. Nearly half live in Oxnard, most of them children of Mexican immigrants, migrant workers or illegal immigrants, school officials said.

And the non-English speaking students keep coming. “Our numbers continue to increase about 2% a year,” said Supt. Norman R. Brekke of the Oxnard Elementary School District.

Although Oxnard Elementary has 71 certified bilingual teachers — more than any district in the county — it also has the most bilingual education students, about 5,500, almost half its total enrollment. More than 98% of them speak Spanish, the highest percentage in the county.

In the fierce competition for certified bilingual teachers, many districts send administrators on out-of-state recruiting trips, mainly to Texas and New Mexico. The Moorpark Unified School District has sent recruiters as far away as Puerto Rico.

As incentives, the Oxnard Elementary district gives certified bilingual teachers onetime $1,000 bonuses and grants eight years of service to transfers, which can mean an additional $4,500 a year in salary.

“We feel (the incentives) are making a difference,” Patterson said. “When we’re out recruiting, teachers are very glad to hear about the extra money.”

Oxnard Union is faced with the same problems as Oxnard Elementary. In the last five years, the number of bilingual education students in the high school district has quadrupled, going from fewer than 1,000 to nearly 4,000, including students identified as preliterate, meaning they enter high school with no formal education.

Although the district doesn’t offer bonuses, it does send recruiters to major teacher job fairs on the East Coast.

Even with its lack of certified bilingual teachers, Oxnard Union has been able to advance more students into the mainstream than any district in the county. From the spring of 1992 to last spring, 661 bilingual education students were designated as having “fluent English proficiency” and transferred into regular classes.

The Santa Paula Elementary School District was a distant second to Oxnard Union, re-designating 218 students.

Statewide, the number of re-designated students has remained at only about 60,000 a year for the last decade. The Little Hoover Commission report said the figure “indicates that either thousands of children are not making progress in English or assessments are not done properly.”

In measuring the success of a bilingual education program, educators don’t give much weight to the number of students a district re-designates because “the basis of re-designation is English fluency, not academic skills,” Dolson said.

Elementary schools are generally more successful than high schools in recruiting and training bilingual teachers and educating bilingual students, said Rodrigues, of the county superintendent of schools office.

The reason is because one elementary teacher is able to teach all subjects, whereas high schools require specialists in each subject. If a high school does not have a certified bilingual math teacher, for example, a student may end up learning little or no math.

“High schools would be the first to say that they are not delivering 100% of the core programs to kids,” Rodrigues said.

He noted that a recent state audit criticized the Los Angeles Unified School District’s bilingual education program for failing to educate many high school students with English language deficiencies.

Districts have to be cagey to find certified teachers.

Three years ago, Ventura Unified’s school board gave the district permission to hire bilingual teachers in the spring — before most districts even determine the overall number of new teachers needed for the next school year.

The move enabled Ventura to bolster its staff of certified bilingual teachers to 46, second in the county to Oxnard Elementary. But Ventura has about 4,100 fewer bilingual students than Oxnard.

“Being able to offer early contracts to bilingual teachers has helped us,” said Jennifer Robles, the district’s bilingual specialist.


Conejo Valley Unified and Simi Valley Unified have different problems than most other districts. While having fewer Spanish-speaking students, they have larger numbers of students who speak such languages as Vietnamese, Korean, Cantonese and Mandarin. As hard as it is to find Spanish-speaking bilingual teachers, finding one who speaks Asian languages is almost impossible, officials say.

“It doesn’t help my Vietnamese students to be spoken to in Spanish,” said Rebecca Wetzel, coordinator of special programs in the Simi Valley district.

With as many as 40 languages spoken in the district, Wetzel said, schools often resemble the Tower of Babel. To help those students speaking languages other than Spanish, the district has hired about two dozen certified language development specialists who use pictures and “teach content in English in slower, more descriptive ways,” Wetzel said.

Conejo solves the problem by teaching English as a Second Language to all foreign students and employing instructional assistants in nine languages.

To supplement their thin bilingual staffs, county districts employ about as many classroom aides and teachers-in-training as certified teachers. State law requires teachers who still need to pass state requirements before becoming certified to be paired with an aide who speaks a foreign language.

To give teachers-in-training a push, the Ventura County superintendent of schools holds certification training seminars. More elementary schoolteachers enroll in the workshops than high school teachers, Rodrigues said.

While elementary schools have been emphasizing teacher training for a number of years, high schools only recently revamped their training procedures on orders from the state, he said.

To provide an incentive for teachers, districts pay for bilingual certification classes and even give bonuses to those passing the test. One year, Ventura Unified paid the expenses of teachers who went to Mexico to study Spanish.

In a state with more than 7 million Hispanics, why is there a shortage of Spanish-speaking teachers? With college tuition on the rise, “A lot of Hispanic kids are not finding the means to go,” said Brekke of Oxnard Elementary.

And California businesses are competing for Spanish-speaking college graduates “just as hard as we are,” said Patterson, Oxnard Elementary assistant superintendent.

To encourage high school students to become bilingual teachers, Oxnard Union’s Migrant Education Teacher Corps program gives students a chance to tutor classmates during their senior year and prods them to go to college. In three years, about 150 students have gone through the program. The district hopes some of them will return as certified bilingual teachers.

But Gary Davis, Oxnard Union’s assistant superintendent, isn’t optimistic about ever solving the teacher shortage.

“Even if the (number of bilingual students) were static,” he said, “I don’t think it’s possible to catch up.”

Bilingual Education in the County English Certified Student- Deficient Bilingual Teacher District Students Teachers Ratio Briggs Elementary 79 2 40-1 *Conejo Valley Unified 1,012 3 337-1 Fillmore Unified 1,127 24 47-1 Hueneme Elementary 2,143 41 52-1 Mesa Union Elementary 44 1 44-1 Moorpark Unified 849 24 35-1 Mupu Elementary 6 0 — Oak Park Unified 61 0 — Ocean View Elementary 1,050 19 55-1 Ojai Unified 231 10 23-1 Oxnard Elementary 5,776 71 81-1 Oxnard Union High 3,898 17 229-1 Pleasant Valley Elementary 560 9 62-1 Rio Elementary 803 10 80-1 Santa Clara Elementary 2 0 — Santa Paula Elementary 957 19 50-1 Santa Paula Union High 281 6 47-1 Simi Valley Unified 929 13 71-1 Somis Union Elementary 85 0 — Ventura County Supt. 97 0 — Ventura Unified 1,654 46 36-1 Countywide 21,644 315 69-1 Statewide 1,151,819 18,951 61-1

* Conejo Valley Unified teaches English as a Second Language instead of bilingual education

Source: California Department of Education, Spring 1993

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