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Houston Schools Turn to Mexico for Bilingual Teachers

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Demonstrating just how difficult it has become to find enough bilingual teachers for Spanish-speaking students, the Houston Independent School District has carried its recruiting efforts south of the border.

On Sunday of this week, the district, already known for its aggressive recruiting, was scheduled to run an advertisement in the English-language Mexico City News encouraging readers to apply for teaching positions. Houston faces a teacher shortage that could reach 1,200 vacancies by next September, including 400 positions for elementary-level bilingual teachers, said a school-district spokesman.

The advertisement is an experiment, said Geri Konigsberg, the district's director of information. "We don't anticipate getting great numbers. What we hope to do is develop a rapport, so we can recruit in later years."

According to Ms. Konigsberg, advance word of the advertisement has generated so much interest that the district has already received more than 100 inquiries, including "several good prospects" and "one great coach."

Houston's international search for bilingual teachers comes at a time when the Reagan Administration proposes a freeze in bilingual-education spending and a $9-million cut in funds for the training and retraining of bilingual teachers.

In defense of its proposed cuts, the Administration has cited, in the words of one lobbyist, "unnamed studies stating that the shortage of bilingual teachers is not as severe as it was before."

But according to James J. Lyons of the National Association for Bilingual Education, Houston's efforts are evidence of a "horrendous" shortage.

Mr. Lyons cited an Education Department report, "The Condition of Bilingual Education in the Nation, 1984," which found that nearly 25 percent of all public-school teachers in the country in 1980-81 had students with limited English proficiency enrolled in their classes, yet only 3.2 percent of those teachers had either the requisite language skills or the training to teach such students.

"What it says is that it is very difficult to find adequate numbers of trained bilingual teachers," agreed Lori S. Orem of the National Council for La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

Waiver Systems

Some districts, such as Los Angeles, where some 130,000 students are enrolled in nearly 5,000 bilingual classes, have resorted to so-called waiver systems, in which English-speaking teachers lacking bilingual skills teach with the aid of an uncertified native speaker. The Los Angeles Unified School District employs more than 1,800 of these waiver teachers and gives them up to six years to develop bilingual proficiency.

Another 1,162 teachers lacking bilingual skills team-teach courses with bilingual teachers, according to Robert E. Searle, an administrator in the district's personnel office. He said up to 100 others are enrolled in emergency bilingual credential programs, in which bilingual college graduates with degrees in fields other than education are certified to teach.

Like Houston, Los Angeles recruits on college campuses nationwide. It contacts Hispanic students and encourages them to major in education, and it sponsors a "minority future-teacher program" aimed at preparing bilingual high-school students for teaching careers.

Yet, according to Robert Albin, director of bilingual staffing for the Los Angeles district, "Even if we were able to hire all the [bilingual education] students enrolled in California colleges, it would not be sufficient to meet our needs."

Likewise, Ms. Konigsberg said that "in Texas, we find very few bilingual-education teachers--we find very few teachers at all--graduating from college."

The reasons for the shortage, they say, are the same as those in other teaching fields--low pay, media reports of a "teacher glut," and better opportunities in other fields. Hispanics, in particular, tend to go into trades, where they know they can earn a steady wage, Mr. Albin said.

New Preschool Classes

In Houston, the teacher crunch is in part the product of a 7-percent turnover rate among current teachers. It also stems from recent state legislation that mandates preschool education for disadvantaged 4-year-olds and lowers the pupil-teacher ratio in elementary schools from 25 to 1 to 22 to 1.

The preschool program is expected to draw heavily on bilingual teachers because 70 percent, or up to 8,000, of the students starting the program in September will not speak English, the district estimates.

According to Ms. Konigsberg, the number of students entering school in the district who lack English proficiency continues to grow. This year, for example, the district placed 741 5th graders in self-contained bilingual classrooms; at the same time, it had 5,500 kindergartners and 1st graders in such classes.

All told, 31,000 of the district's 189,000 students are enrolled in nearly 1,000 bilingual or English-as-a-second-language classes, Ms. Konigsberg said.

"What you're seeing all across the Southwest is an increased need for bilingual education," she added. "We are not alone in our recruitment. ... Schools are going about getting teachers all ways--offering them extra money, offering to pay for their moving expenses, and offering tuition reimbursement."

Aggressive Strategies

Although the hisd does not reimburse teachers for their moving expenses or their tuition, by all accounts it is among the nation's most aggressive recruiters.

Bilingual teachers in Houston can earn "hellacious bonuses," as Mr. Lyons put it: Individuals teaching mathematics or science in year-round, extended-day bilingual programs can earn $7,000 a year more than the district's 10-month starting salary of $17,800 for regular teachers.

And the district carries its message near and far. In addition to Mexico City, the district is currently advertising in 26 major United States newspapers.

"We've gone into 48 states in the last six or seven years," Ms. Konigsberg said.

Last year, a Houston recruiter even showed up at a meeting of the New Mexico Bilingual Association, according to the head of that state's National Education Association af-filiate. "Next to me was this guy trying to recruit teachers," said Jude Mason. "A $6,000 or $7,000 increase is pretty good--if you want to go to Texas."

Certified or Certifiable

According to Ms. Konigsberg, Houston is not the first American school district to recruit in Mexico. She said Mexico represents an attractive labor market for the same reason that continues to bring Mexican nationals across the border--a depressed economy.

Ms. Konigsberg said the school district hopes its advertisement will reach Americans living in Mexico who might want to return to the United States. They would either have to be certified to teach bilingual education or "certifiable," meaning the applicant has graduated from an accredited college but does not necessarily have any teaching experience, Ms. Konigsberg said.

All applicants would go through an "extensive" screening procedure, and would have to pass proficiency tests and a state teacher-competency test, she said. "We are not just looking for bodies."

Hard To Criticize

According to bilingual-education experts, Houston's aggressive recruiting has hurt other districts that do not have the same resources to attract teachers.

The bonus program "definitely constituted a draw on some of the poorer districts in the San Antonio area," Mr. Lyons said.

But Mr. Lyons refuses to criticize Houston's policies.

"I think Houston is a school district that is doing everything it can conceivably do to attract bilingual teachers, first by offering bonuses and now by reaching out to Mexico," he said. "The real question is, why is it just Houston? Some school districts are apathetic. I'm more concerned about them than I am about Houston."

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