It’s been two weeks since 8-year-old Fernando Santos left a dingy industrial section of Mexico for a dingy industrial section of Colorado, and one week since he enrolled at Alsup Elementary School in Commerce City.
Fearful and sometimes tearful, Fernando needs emotional as well as academic support from his teacher. And with his essay, ‘Thanksgiving: Dia de Accion de Gracias,’ chronicling the history of a holiday he will soon celebrate for the first time, he earns both.
‘Muy good for you!’ fourth-grade teacher Diana Gonzalez-Nevarez beams, waving his essay for the class to see. ‘You never say, ‘I no can do that!”
Gonzalez knows where Fernando is coming from – literally.
She, too, is a Mexican immigrant, one of three teachers Adams County School District 14 brought north this fall to boost a chronically shorthanded corps of bilingual teachers. Denver Public Schools and other metro-area districts are thinking of doing the same.
In Denver, as in Adams 14 school district, a majority of students are Hispanic and a rapidly growing minority – now about 20 percent – enter school as monolingual Spanish speakers, directly from Mexico.
A backlash to bilingual education is building; voters in California and Arizona have ordered such programs dismantled, and English-only activists in Colorado promise to do the same here. For the time being, however, it remains the norm in many Colorado communities. The theory is to let the children speak, write and learn academic subjects in the language spoken at home until they feel comfortable in English, ideally within three years.
Labor is one of the few commodities not covered by the North American Free Trade Agreement, so importing teachers is easier said than done. Yet Adams 14 landed three-year, cultural-exchange visas with the help of Denver’s Mexican consulate.
Marcela Dela Mar, executive director of the consulate’s Mexican Cultural Center, forwarded Adams 14’s request to the education departments of each Mexican state. They found interested teachers and funneled their applications back through Dela Mar. Two Adams 14 principals interviewed about 15 applicants in Mexico City in December. The district offered jobs to five of them, and three accepted.
The district hopes to hire five Mexican teachers each year, for a total of 15 at any given time, assuming they all stay for three years, said Joe Holeman, director of human resources. The district has 137 elementary-school classrooms, 38 of which are considered bilingual.
The aim of bringing in more bilingual teachers is to be able to spread the Spanish-speaking kids more evenly throughout a school, speeding their acclimation to English, rather than clump them into a single classroom.
Adams 14 seems to have started a trend, Dela Mar said: She has fielded requests from several metro-area school districts in addition to DPS. Districts aren’t obligated to check in with Mexican officials before recruiting, Dela Mar said. But most are doing so because she and her contacts are, in effect, a free headhunting firm.
‘We don’t charge for any of these services,’ Dela Mar said.
The Denver school board has given the district’s human resources office a green light to investigate doing what Adams 14 has done.
Guillermo Duran of DPS said Denver plans to hire five to 10 teachers from Mexico, starting in August. If successful, the program will continue to bring in that many for successive years.
Gonzalez and Adams 14 officials say the experiment appears to be a success, though not an unqualified one.
Gonzalez is an experienced educator – she’s a professor at a teachers college in Mexico City, and taught for a year in Milwaukee. She’s also an attorney who served as a consular officer in San Diego. Yet an important aspect of her duties in Commerce City eluded her during the application and interview process.
There are many bilingual private schools in Mexico, she said, but classes are taught strictly in English for three hours each day and strictly in Spanish for three hours. She had no idea that when Americans speak of bilingual classrooms, they expect a single teacher to be able to teach in both languages, switching back and forth unpredictably throughout the day as students at different levels determine the language spoken.
‘For me was a surprise,’ she said in fluid but not-quite-right English.
Gonzalez confidently corrects the work of those students who have chosen to write their Thanksgiving essays in English.
‘Thanks giving’ becomes ‘Thanksgiving'; ‘fammily’ becomes ‘family.’ But she’s aware her speech often reflects Spanish grammar. Criticizing Pedro’s microscopic handwriting, she says: ‘I can’t see nothing, Pedro.’
The other two Mexican teachers arrived with the same misapprehension, Holeman said. ‘They thought they would be teaching Spanish only. I think that was a miscommunication with us,’ he said.
Alsup’s principal, Michael Grandstaff, said he’s aware of Gonzalez’s strained spoken English, but he likes her classroom skills and considers her an asset.
‘I think it’s working well,’ he said. ‘Obviously with any new program there’s an adjustment period.’ Gonzalez’s greatest strength is her ability to help children like Fernando Santos fit in, he said.
‘I think everyone wants the program to succeed, and I think it will,’ Grandstaff said. ‘It showed some foresight and some vision on the part of the board and the district administration to allow a program like this. A lot of people would turn a program like this down.’
Grandstaff said it’s an example of how the 6,200-student district is more professional and progressive than some may think.
In addition to the difference in educational approach, some nasty financial surprises awaited the three expats, and Adams 14 spokeswoman Pat Shipley said some changes may need to be made. The district pays them the same as local teachers, but no relocation costs. Nobody thought to ask whether they’d be bringing their families with them, but they did, turning salaries that may have looked like fortunes into – well, teacher’s pay.
‘We thought they were kind of coming as a sabbatical,’ Shipley said. ‘It just didn’t come up during the process.’
Gonzalez left almost all of her possessions in Mexico City, so everything from equipping her kitchen to leasing a car became a hardship. But being overworked and underpaid is the teacher’s lot worldwide, she said with a smile. And, like teachers worldwide, she does it because she’s needed.
Trying to help her little compatriots adjust to life in Colorado ‘is more work for me’ than staying in Mexico would be, she says. ‘But I think they need it, and I want to help them, and I can do it.’