School district looks at hiring after bias charge

Santa Paula: Trustee claims policies block hiring of bilingual educators.

A school board member’s charge that discrimination and institutional racism stop the district from employing bilingual educators has prompted the Santa Paula School District to study its hiring practices.

The district, which has 4,093 students, has a large number of parents and students who speak only Spanish, yet it “intends” to hire only English-speaking teachers, board member Ofelia de la Torre said.

“I feel we are practicing institutional, and maybe even covert institutional, racism,” said de la Torre, who was elected to the board in November.

“Our people really get shafted,” she said during an early-morning special board meeting Wednesday.

Superintendent Bonnie Bruington denied the accusation. She said Spanish-speaking staff members are at every campus to help parents. And the district tries to attract bilingual educators, she said.

After about 20 minutes of at-times bitter discussions, the school board unanimously agreed to form an ad hoc committee to review hiring practices and design guidelines.

Anyone interested in participating should call 933-5342.

De la Torre favors hiring uncredentialed teachers if they can speak Spanish. Students need role models, she said.

Santa Paula is a heavily Latino community. The 2000 U.S. Census reports its Hispanic population swelled by 38 percent since 1990, and the town is now 71 percent Hispanic. According to the state Department of Education, the seven-campus district has a Hispanic enrollment that tops 84 percent, while about 20 percent of its teachers — 40 of 204 — are Hispanic.

Comparatively, Rio School District has a Hispanic enrollment of 80 percent and a teacher population that is 40 percent Hispanic; Hueneme School District has 71 percent Hispanic enrollment and 36 percent of its teachers are Hispanic; and Oxnard School District has 81 percent Hispanic enrollment and 30 percent of its teachers are Hispanic.

Bruington noted that ethnicity does not reflect language in integrated Santa Paula.

Thirty-one percent of all students, or 1,265 students, are English-language learners, she said, while 66 percent of teachers –135 — have some Spanish-speaking abilities. Of those, 27 teachers hold a bilingual credential, 98 are studying Spanish, and 10 are bilingual, but not credentialed, she said.

District officials said numerous factors hinder hiring bilingual instructors, including the district’s pay scale, aging facilities and a general lack of qualified candidates.

“We’re out there trying,” said James Medina, principal at Grace Thille School.

But they are vying against larger, better-paying districts such as in Ventura and Oxnard for a small pool of qualified people.

“It’s pretty competitive out there,” said Medina, who refused to discuss the charge of institutional racism.

Santa Paula’s struggle to attract qualified Hispanic teachers echoes a national trend. Almost 76 percent of teachers trained are white, non-Hispanic, and 12 percent are Hispanic, Assistant Superintendent Louise Platt said.

De la Torre did not accept the explanations and said district pay is competitive.

She said she was prompted to speak out after Bruington hired a non-bilingual middle school administrator, after being asked by her to find someone with Spanish-speaking skills.

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