Judgment day for bilingual education

SCHOOLS: Westminster School District's application for a waiver to use aides is being reviewed today.

A shortage of certified bilingual teachers has set off a bidding war for their services and ultimately may succeed where politics hasn’t in changing how English is taught in California schools.

The issue will come to a head today when the state Board of Education decides whether to grant Westminster School District a waiver allowing it to pair teachers with bilingual aides to teach all students primarily in English.

The waiver would exempt Westminster from state guidelines requiring that districts employ certified bilingual teachers in proportion to the non-English-speaking student population.

The guidelines mean that Westminster, where almost one in two students speaks primarily Spanish or Vietnamese, must employ 90 certified bilingual teachers.

Instead of 90, the district employs five. Where it is supposed to have 53 Vietnamese-speaking teachers, Westminster has two. In all of California, only 55 certified bilingual teachers speak Vietnamese.

In requesting the waiver, the district argues that the teacher shortage makes it nearly impossible to meet the guidelines.

“Even if right now we hired (almost) every single certified bilingual Vietnamese teacher in the state of California, we still would not meet our need,” said Tracy Painter, coordinator of the district’s special projects.

So Westminster is asking permission to meet the requirements by pairing English-speaking teachers with bilingual aides. Unlike teachers, who must have college degrees and a credential, bilingual aides in Westminster need only show high school proficiency in English and their teaching language.

The waiver would be the first since the state adjusted its guidelines last year to allow more flexibility in districts. The ruling is being watched by districts looking to remedy their teacher shortages.

Proponents say Westminster’s plan, which has been implemented in some schools in anticipation of a favorable ruling, would end language segregation and allow students to learn English faster by exposing them to the language earlier and more frequently than classes taught in the native tongue.

“Teachers want to continue to teach in English so these children are hearing English,” said Carolyn Anderson, president of the Westminster Teachers Association, which represents 400 teachers.

“It’s best for students because it gets them learning English at an earlier age. We hope other districts will do something similar and see that, yes, students need to be taught in English. “

Teachers and aides already involved in the Westminster program say it works. In one second-grade class at Willmore Elementary School on Wednesday, students separated into small groups. All learned the story of the Three Little Pigs, but one group called it “Los Tres Cochinitos. “

“I explain to them in Spanish, but they return to the class as a group to participate in English,” said aide Doris Redgrift. “I think it’s better for them. ” Proponents of bilingual education say the waiver request runs contrary to the spirit of bilingual education. They worry that the teacher shortage might be used as an excuse to eliminate the program, which has come under criticism in some political circles as being ineffective and impractical.

“We have a shortage of math teachers and no one is trying to eliminate or reduce the math curriculum,” said Silvina Rubinstein, director of state and legislative affairs for the California Association for Bilingual Education, which has expressed concern over Westminster’s request.

“Yes, there is a lack of qualified personnel for bilingual instruction, but it doesn’t mean that this is the correct response to it. “

Rubinstein cited studies that suggest limited-English students who are taught in their native language do better in school over the long run. Other studies suggest that English immersion moves students into the mainstream faster. The conflict between the two is the essence of the bilingual debate.

Bilingual education is an umbrella term for a myriad of educational programs that teach English to speakers of other languages. Its ultimate goal, no matter the program, is to produce students who can read and write in English at the end of their special instruction. Federal case law requires schools to provide understandable instruction for students who speak other languages.

To do that, the state suggests that districts employ about one bilingual teacher for every 30 non-English-speaking students. By that calculation, California districts, which spent at least $ 300 million on bilingual education in 1994-95, are 20,000 short of state goals for certified bilingual teachers, according to the California Department of Education.

In 1994-95, California had about 1.2 million students with limited English proficiency.

Up to now, districts with shortages have met the spirit of the state guidelines _ and collected their money _ by promising to enroll teachers in language classes and bilingual-certification programs. The Orange County Department of Education arranges the instruction here.

The difference with Westminster’s waiver is that it would implement the teacher-aide program without requiring teachers to enroll in the special training.

That worries some bilingual teachers.

“If an assistant is just translating, that’s not going to meet the needs,” said Ibi Davila, a bilingual teacher at Lowell Elementary School in Santa Ana.

Davila, who speaks unaccented English, is a product and avid supporter of bilingual education. She arrived in Ventura County from Mexico when she was in seventh grade and says she was inspired by her bilingual teachers.

“Bilingual education made a difference in my confidence,” she said. “For me now, it makes a great deal of difference to be able to communicate with my students so I don’t see them get frustrated. “

Besides the emotional rewards, there are the financial ones.

The shortage has turned bilingual teachers such as Davila into the free agents of education, as sought after as winning quarterbacks. Some get signing bonuses; others get free college tuition.

Santa Ana Unified School District pays bilingual-certified teachers an extra $ 1,500 a year. The district has more than 300 teachers certified in bilingual education and 350 more certified to teach students with limited English. Despite the enticements, the district is about 200 teachers short of meeting its own goals.

The district recently reached across the Atlantic Ocean to snatch teachers from Spain.

“We just couldn’t find enough people who were Spanish-fluent,” Superintendent Al Mijares said. “Regardless where one is at with bilingual education, most people understand that when a teacher speaks a student’s primary language there’s a different level of relating to that student. ” Ana Menendez can be reached by phone at (714) 953-7751 or by E-mail at [email protected]

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