Schools vie for bilingual teachers

Their scarcity and students' numerous languages prompt policy re-evaluation

ANAHEIM—All it took was the slightest hesitation, a lingering glance at the photo display of the Golden Gate Bridge, and Lloyd Chine was ready with the pitch.

“Are there any questions I can answer for you about San Francisco?” Chine asked.

Chine is the affirmative action officer for the San Francisco Unified School District. He was at the California Association for Bilingual Education Conference this weekend, looking for badly needed bilingual teachers.

The pitch rolled from Chine’s mouth smoother than water over ice, and the potential candidate responded immediately. She was looking for a job. And in the world of bilingual education, where the number of limited English -speakers exceeds the number of bilingual teachers, jobs are like apples at harvest.

Districts are so desperate for bilingual teachers and competition is so fierce that many use incentives such as stipends, scholarships and extra help toward getting credentials.

“Would you seriously consider coming up in September?” Chine asked the woman. “What would it take to entice you?”

But other nearby school districts were enticing, too. On the other side of the room, Oakland turned heads with $ 4,000 stipends and partially paid trips to Spain and Mexico for language school, plus plenty of free training. But next to San Francisco sat the Redwood City School District booth and it had much less to offer: salaries ranging from $ 4,000 to $ 5,000 less than nearby cities.

“We’re all eating from the same trough and there’s only so much to go around,” said Bobby Allen, deputy superintendent for San Rafael Unified. “Many districts have found ways to get teachers. We don’t have any incentives. It makes it more difficult when we’re vying for Los Angeles (college students and teachers) or some of the larger districts,” he said.

But Chine had San Francisco and its cultural appeal.

A huge disparity

The number of limited-English speakers enrolled in public schools in California has soared 149 percent from 1984 to 1.2 million, a figure that represents about 23 percent of public school students. Meanwhile, the number of teachers in the state has jumped about 43 percent in 10 years, to 10,700.

But the disparity between supply and demand remains gargantuan.

In addition, as many as 80 languages are spoken at some schools. Everything from Arabic to Urdu represents the first languages of young people around the state; 77 percent of them speak Spanish. These numbers have administrators clamoring for teachers. Those fluent in Spanish, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Hmong and Tagalog are almost guaranteed employment.

However, critics says the current shortage of bilingual teachers indicates that the state needs to relax its regulations, allowing districts to rely more on English as a Second Language courses and other methods that avoid using the native languages of students. Some districts have been so flustered by the shortage of teachers, especially for the less known languages such as Mien and Hmong, that they have gone to the state board of education seeking leniency.

The board has been reviewing the current bilingual education policy and plans to make changes, but board members have not been clear on what those changes might be.

In 1993, the Little Hoover Commission, a conservative think tank in Sacramento, did a study that concluded the state should focus less on teaching children in their own language and more on quickly moving the child into the mainstream with solid English skills.

“The issue is, we have 110 different languages,” said Jeannine English, executive director of the commission. “If you try to hire the right teachers for the right languages, you’re always going to have a shortage of teachers.

“One district in West Sacramento went through an extensive recruitment for Spanish-speaking teachers. The next year, there was an influx of Russian. We’re never going to have just one native-language-speaking population with the multitude of people moving into California. All teachers need to be trained to deal with these students.”

But some researchers say students perform much better in the long run when they receive instruction for mainstay courses in their own language.

Different approaches

An ongoing study, co-researched by Virginia Collier, professor of graduate education at George Mason University, has found that students learning subjects in their own language achieve the average standardized scores of mainstream students. By the time they reach high school, Collier said, many outperform their English-speaking peers.

Meanwhile, some districts, such as West Contra Costa Unified, have gone as far as Spain, at the expense of the Spanish Embassy, to find Spanish -speaking teachers. Others have gone to Mexico. Still others reach out to the community, asking for parents and activists to offer tutoring in their own language. And others rely on teacher aides who speak foreign languages.

Michael Genzuk believes these are all short-term solutions. Genzuk is the director of the University of Southern California Latino Teacher Project. The program selects teacher aides in schools and helps them work toward a college degree and ultimately a bilingual credential.

In collaboration with the Los Angeles Unfied School District, and the California State Universities at Los Angeles and Dominguez Hills, and two unions, the USC project addresses many of the social, financial and academic barriers that often keep bilingual people from getting their credentials. The program is outdoing national figures that show four out of five new teachers in the nation leave within the first five years.

“This is a grow-your-own project,” Genzuk said. “When you can’t find enough algebra teachers, that doesn’t mean you stop teaching algebra. We’re looking at reform of teacher education, development of long-term programs.”

And while he believes in programs such as the Latino Teacher Project, Genzuk said the effort needs to expand statewide. Gov. Wilson has earmarked $ 2 million for teacher training. Genzuk is pleased with Wilson’s intent but concedes it’s a drop in the bucket as far as what’s needed.

“We know what works,” he said. “It’s just a matter of instituting it.”

Comments are closed.