Chicago public school officials will fly to Puerto Rico Monday to try to solve one of the system’s most serious problems, a severe shortage of qualified bilingual teachers, which has forced the schools to employ people in many classrooms who do not speak English. School board President George Munoz said Friday that nearly one out of four of the 1,200 bilingual teachers in the schools “are not truly bilingual.” “Those teachers speak either Spanish or English, but not both,” Munoz said. “With an all-Spanish teacher, the students don’t move quickly enough into English; if the teacher speaks only English, we aren’t bridging the gap adequately.”
Munoz, Supt. Manford Byrd Jr., three other board members and nine staff members will recruit, interview, test, certify and hire bilingual teachers in Puerto Rico. “If they are qualified, we can offer them a job on the spot,” Munoz said. “If we don’t bring them back on the plane with us, we hope they will follow within a few weeks. We have exhausted our supply of candidates here.”
There are 36,000 Chicago students in bilingual programs and about 80 percent speak Spanish as their native language. They are taught by 1,200 teachers, and are expected to spend a maximum of three years in the program. Bilingual education was criticized in September by federal Education Secretary William Bennett, who called for schools to teach more in English and less in a student’s native language. But Chicago’s desegregation agreement with the U.S. Justice Department, as well as federal and state law, requires a bilingual program that teaches children in their native foreign language for 90 minutes a day while they learn English. Teachers are supposed to be able to speak both languages fluently. “The debate over the benefits of bilingual education is taking place not only outside our schools, but within,” Munoz said. “Because of philosophical and political arguments, the bilingual program in Chicago has not been as aggressively pursued as it should have been.” Munoz said it was impossible to judge the merits of the Chicago program because “it has never been allowed to work the way it is supposed to. I know there are problems, but I also know there are positive aspects.” Opposition to the hirings could come from the Chicago Teachers Union, Munoz said, because the shortage of 288 qualified bilingual teachers “does not mean those positions are empty. They are filled with people who aren’t qualified. Replacing them could cause some problems.” Munoz said Puerto Rico was the best solution to finding qualified bilingual teachers because “they are U.S. citizens and Chicago already has an established Puerto Rican community, so assimilation will be easier here than it would be in some places in the southwest, for example.” The shortage of bilingual teachers is a nationwide problem, and Munoz said the Chicago schools have been competing with Texas, California and New York, often for the same teachers. “New York City recently went to Spain to recruit teachers,” Munoz said. Besides Munoz and Byrd, board members Raul Villalobos, Myrna Salazar and William Penn are going, as is Margaret Harrigan, director of curriculum, and members of the personnel and multicultural education departments and the board of examiners. While in Puerto Rico, staff members will visit elementary and high schools to learn about the education children receive before they immigrate to America. They also will share American education ideas with Puerto Rican educators. “With Hispanics our fastest-growing student population, it is important for us to learn everything we can to make their transition into American schools easier,” Munoz said.