English-Language Learners

‘Homegrown’ Bilingual-Ed.Teachers Take Root

By Lynn Schnaiberg — March 23, 1994 7 min read
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When Ariel Nievas came to California from Buenos Aires at age 13, he spoke only Spanish.

By the time he reached age 17, he was writing lesson plans for a classroom full of bilingual kindergarten students in the Fontana Unified School District, about an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles.

Today, he is a student at California State University at San Bernadino, where he is preparing for a career as a bilingual teacher.

Since his first year of high school, Mr. Nievas has been shepherded by a “grow your own’’ program the Fontana district set up three years ago to help alleviate a shortage of such teachers.

“There are kids you may think are going straight to McDonald’s, but who are trying to improve,’' Mr. Nievas said. “This program is something our schools aren’t doing enough of: saying, ‘We can help you achieve your goals.’''

Frustrated with the cost, time, and risk associated with recruiting bilingual teachers, a number of districts are looking to their own classrooms of language-minority students to develop a new generation of teaching prospects. The Fontana program is seen as the most comprehensive model in this nascent movement.

The National Association for Bilingual Education estimates that U.S. school districts currently need roughly 175,000 more certified bilingual teachers than are available to serve some 3.5 million limited-English-proficient students. A 1993 study done for the U.S. Education Department estimated that at least 35,000 certified bilingual teachers were teaching across the country, although department officials say that estimate is too low.

Catching Up

Educational institutions have used the grow-your-own approach to teacher recruitment for some time, particularly to bolster the ranks of minority teachers or those who specialize in areas of critical shortage.

For example, the Council for Exceptional Children has for decades run high school clubs geared toward grooming students to be special-education teachers, said George E. Ayers, the executive director of the council.

David C. Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers, a national, nonprofit organization based in Belmont, Mass., noted that no central clearinghouse keeps track of such programs.

In 1993, the group released what it says was the first national study of precollegiate recruitment efforts, reporting 216 programs enrolling about 30,000 students. Most were less than five years old.

Since that study, Mr. Haselkorn has learned of 290 more programs aimed at early recruitment of students for teaching careers.

“The greatest single reason for these programs has been to attract minority teachers,’' he said, with a lesser emphasis on bilingual- and special-education teachers.

James J. Lyons, the executive director of NABE, said one reason that precollegiate recruitment programs in bilingual education are just starting to expand is that the field has been fraught with political and pedagogical controversy.

“We’re in a catch-up mode that’s about 10 years behind the times because of this,’' Mr. Lyons said.

Gloria DeNecochea, a program officer for the ARCO Foundation and a former bilingual teacher, said another contributing factor is that knowing another language is not always valued in American schools.

“If kids don’t think they’re valued, why are they going to assume anyone’s interested in hiring them because they have other language capabilities?’' she said.

Clubs, Credits, and Paychecks

Jerilynn Smith, the coordinator of bilingual programs for the Fontana district, started its grow-your-own program in 1990, after making repeated recruiting trips to Arizona and Texas. She spent about $10,000 each time, she said, and came up with only two recruits, both of whom eventually left the district.

“Getting people to come here was somewhat of a struggle, so we decided to invest in our own people,’' she said.

About 6,000 of the district’s 30,000 students have limited proficiency in English, and 98 percent of those students speak Spanish. Most of the rest speak Arabic or Vietnamese.

Since 1990, the district has spent about $70,000 on the grow-your-own program, using a combination of state and federal funds for immigrant and L.E.P. students.

The core of the program is a Future Bilingual Teachers of America club that the district originally set up in one high school in 1991 and that now operates in two.

The faculty adviser, Gary Hinckley, brings in elementary-level bilingual teachers to discuss the students’ work, then reviews pedagogy in preparation for the students’ apprenticeships as teachers’ aides.

They receive high school credit and a paycheck for working during the summer in the district’s elementary schools, which are on a year-round schedule. Seniors can work as aides during the regular school year as well.

“The club helped me shape my thoughts and understand what my language could do for me,’' Mr. Nievas said. “It helps kids who have no clue what they want to do with those skills.’'

Financial Aid for College

Jenny Garcia, a Fontana senior, spends the first two periods of the school day helping elementary-level students read in Spanish and English. She plans to go on to become a bilingual teacher.

“More and more kids are coming from Mexico and Central America into our community, and I want to be able to help and give back something,’' she said.

If graduating students are still interested in becoming bilingual teachers, the district hires them as bilingual aides and they sign a contract. The district promises to pay for the students’ college training, and the students agree to work as bilingual teachers in Fontana for the same number of years that they received financial aid.

The idea seems to have caught on. When Mr. Nievas joined the club in 1991, there were 13 members; today there are 80. But the need for bilingual teachers is also increasing. Just four years ago, the district had 10 certified bilingual teachers; today it has 52 and needs another 50, Ms. Smith said.

When Fontana educators gave a presentation on the program at the NABE conference held last month in Los Angeles, they spoke to a full house, representing districts from San Francisco to Lincoln, Neb.

Navajo Initiative

The Fontana model could be the wave of the future, observers say.

“More and more districts are figuring out how to grow their own bilingual teachers,’' said Mary S. Leighton, a researcher for Policy Studies Associates in Washington. “They may not have contracts like Fontana, but they’re realizing they’re not going to keep [teachers] unless they grow their own.’'

Ms. Leighton worked on a federal study, not yet released, that identifies professional-development initiatives with the potential to benefit L.E.P. students.

Other districts are using some elements of Fontana’s approach.

The Tucson Unified School District in Arizona started a career ladder for its bilingual teacher aides in 1991, modeling its contract after Fontana’s, and is considering starting clubs in its high schools for future bilingual teachers. So far, 45 aides are in the pipeline.

Gloria A. Dominguez, the assistant director for bilingual education and Hispanic studies for the district, said that outside recruiting has not filled her district’s needs.

“All we’re doing is moving people around. If we take someone from California, then California’s short,’' Ms. Dominguez said. With the grow-your-own approach, she said, “people are here and know the area and probably will stay.’'

With help from the Ford Foundation, the University of Northern Colorado this summer plans to bring 60 Navajo students in the 8th to 12th grades to its campus for two weeks to participate in the “Today’s Students Tomorrow’s Teachers’’ program.

The Navajo Nation’s goal is to develop 1,000 Navajo teachers who are bilingual in DinÀe, the nation’s language, and English by 1997. Of the 7,000 teachers who work in schools in Navajo territory--which sprawls across Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah--only 1,300 are Navajo-speaking, according to the Navajo education department.

The students will develop sample lesson plans, work in the campus child-care center, and discuss teaching careers with Navajo teachers. Once they return to their schools, the university will conduct follow-up interviews and encourage counselors to set up clubs.

“We’re trying to show students that careers in education are as rewarding as the higher-profile ones, like engineering,’' said Harvey A. Rude, the assistant dean of the university’s college of education.

He said four other area colleges and universities are working with schools serving Navajo students to foster bilingual career ladders, primarily for teacher aides.

A version of this article appeared in the March 23, 1994 edition of Education Week as ‘Homegrown’ Bilingual-Ed.Teachers Take Root

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