Bilingual Certification Under Inquiry in Houston

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Authorities in Houston are investigating allegations that as many as 90 bilingual-education teachers with almost no English skills and no college degree are teaching in the Houston Independent School District.

The district has placed the director and four other employees of its alternative-certification program on leave with pay until the investigations are completed, district officials said.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Harris County district attorney's office are investigating allegations ranging from visa fraud to improper destruction of government records.

A local television station, KTRK-TV, last month alleged that unnamed district employees helped elementary bilingual teachers in the program cheat on teaching exams, cover up false or deficient credentials, and smuggle illegal aliens into the country.

The station reported that as many as 90 bilingual teachers may have been hired without a college degree or falsely claimed to have a degree from a Latin American institution. It also alleged that many bilingual teachers had poor English-language skills--a charge that appears to be substantiated by a state review.

Rush To Recruit

District staff members translated into Spanish a required basic-skills test--to be taken in English--for some prospective bilingual teachers, the televised report alleged.

"I'd say administratively the rush to meet the need for bilingual teachers has somehow outpaced the quality-check system to insure compliance,'' said Superintendent Roderick Paige, who assumed his post in February.

Observers suggested that the probes of Houston's highly regarded program may have a chilling effect on other districts that are attempting innovative efforts to funnel desperately needed bilingual teachers into the classroom.

"I suspect it will make some districts nervous, but it will make them look hard at their administration of those programs,'' said James J. Lyons, the president of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

Under Houston's alternative-certification program, which is not limited to bilingual candidates, prospective teachers must have a bachelor's degree, pass a basic-skills test, and take education-related courses. They then are considered interns for one year, during which they are evaluated periodically. After that, the state can grant them a teaching certificate after they fulfill various state requirements.

Houston has about 44,000 limited-English-proficient students, most of whom speak Spanish, out of a total enrollment of 200,000.

Possible Illegal Hiring

School officials asked the district attorney's office to investigate whether district staff members had tried to destroy records of foreign-educated teachers hired with questionable credentials, after the television reporter found, in a trash can in the program office, a foreign transcript and other documents that suggested improprieties, said Monetta Kaye DeWalt, the school system's lawyer.

Federal immigration officials think it is possible that several bilingual interns in the program were hired illegally and that district employees were involved in the smuggling of aliens, said Lisa B. Jacobs, the public-affairs director for the Houston-area I.N.S.

Routine reviews of Houston's program by the Texas Education Agency had found that some bilingual teachers had "very limited use of English,'' said a spokeswoman for the agency, Della May Moore.

In December, the district hired a private company to review all transcripts from foreign colleges and universities after finding that one transcript had been been tampered with, Ms. DeWalt said.

Spantran, a Houston-based private evaluation firm specializing in education documents, found that 40 of 350 foreign transcripts audited were deficient enough to make the teachers' eligibility in the program questionable.

The company sent back to the district some transcripts that were clearly marked as having irregularities, but the individuals were hired anyway, said Spantran's president, Sandra D. Rodriguez. The firm currently is reviewing another 50 foreign transcripts.

The KTRK-TV report suggested that many of the problems stemmed from the district's recruitment of bilingual teachers in Latin America. But fewer than 30 program interns have come from recruitment efforts in Mexico, said Linda V. Boas, the district's recruitment director.

Other teachers with foreign transcripts probably approached the district on their own, Ms. Boas said.

In light of the recent charges, the district will cut the number of new program interns and probably will stop its recruitment program in Mexico, Mr. Paige said.

'They're Not There'

The events in Houston underscore the critical need for bilingual teachers in districts around the country, observers said.

Spurred by growth in the number of L.E.P. children and federal and state mandates, many districts are undertaking strenuous efforts to recruit bilingual teachers. Districts such as Los Angeles and Chicago are recruiting Spanish-speaking teachers from Mexico, and some are looking to Puerto Rico, which offers no immigration barriers.

Others, frustrated with the high cost and relatively low payback of outside recruiting, have started "grow your own'' programs for bilingual paraprofessionals. (See Education Week, March 23, 1994.)

The traditional system of certifying candidates through a teacher education program is not producing enough teachers, observers note.

For one thing, many bilingual candidates are not getting into schools of education. The failure rate for Hispanics on standardized entrance tests for some schools of education is much higher than for non-Hispanic whites, said Albert H. Kauffman, a senior attorney for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"If we could hire every bilingual teacher graduate this year in the state of Texas, we still wouldn't have enough,'' said Kaye E. Stripling, an assistant superintendent in Houston. "In other words, they're simply not there.''

Vol. 13, Issue 28

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