Bilingual education back in national spotlight

Where will we find enough multilingual teachers amidst shortage?

Last November, California voters passed Proposition 58 — the Language Education, Acquisition and Readiness Now initiative, or LEARN — by the largest margin of any measure on the ballot.

Today, the CFT and community organizations are working with state education officials and local school districts to revive and update bilingual programs mothballed after voters passed Proposition 227 in 1998.

Ramping up to meet the needs of English Language Learners won’t be easy. Many districts were struggling with teacher shortages before Prop 58.

But language instruction has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past 18 years, and school administrators are showing a new willingness to work with teachers to create successful programs.

With the anti-immigrant political wave that swept California in the 1990s, including Gov. Pete Wilson’s reelection and Proposition 187, requiring proof of legal status for a driver’s license, Prop 227 basically kicked bilingual education to the curb, and the goal became “transitioning” students into all-English classes by fourth grade.

“This time around, we’re adding, not subtracting,” said Francisco Rodriguez, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers. “The emphasis is on multilingualism, not transition to English.”

LEARN was crafted to provide all 1.4 million California students the opportunity to become bilingual and biliterate. That fundamental shift is possible thanks to the rise of dual-immersion programs, in which English learners become proficient in their native language first, which leads to a quicker transition to English. The approach is also aimed at English speakers who want to learn a second language.

“The ideal is for students to join the program in kindergarten, remain through high school, and graduate with strong skills in both languages,” said Gabriela Ibarra, a dual-immersion teacher in the ABC Unified School District for 20 years.

Ibarra’s program at Niemes Elementary School, an environmental science and technology magnet, recently expanded into Ross Middle School as her students advanced. She hopes it will follow them into high school.

CFT Vice President Juan Ramirez of United Teachers Los Angeles said he received little guidance on how to teach a bilingual classroom when he began in 1996, two years before Prop 227 was passed. 

“Back then,” Ramirez recalled, “there were a lot of questions about how effective bilingual programs are. Now we have more data on second-language acquisition.”

Even before voters passed Prop 58, he said, bilingual education had been staging a quiet comeback since the negative results of Prop 227 began to add up. Los Angeles Unified currently offers 87 transitional and dual-immersion programs in Spanish, Korean, Mandarin, French, Armenian and Arabic, and plans to offer 110 this coming school year.

Bilingual education’s biggest challenge will be recruiting enough credentialed instructors to meet growing needs. Californians Together is analyzing more than 4,700 responses to a statewide survey to determine how many certified and non-certified teachers are available to teach languages.

“We have no idea how large the shortage is,” said Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, executive director. “We did this survey to hear from the teachers, especially how many bilingual teachers are now teaching in English, but would return to a bilingual setting.”

Regardless of what the survey reveals, California is sure to need far more teachers and funding to meet its needs. Fewer than 5 percent of ELLs statewide are currently in a bilingual program. 

In the past, stipends were a strong incentive for recruiting and retaining bilingual teachers. Some differentials have been cut or reduced, but Spiegel-Coleman said her survey shows many districts still offer bonuses.

In L.A. Unified, for example, yearly stipends were trimmed from $5,000 to $3,000. To meet its projected teaching needs, the district has been urging universities to encourage more students to seek bilingual credentials.

In Pajaro Valley, bilingual bonuses weren’t an issue in previous contract talks. In his 10 years as president, Rodriguez said, bargaining surveys never indicated significant interest. But, he added, the district does reimburse teachers’ tuition for earning special education credentials.

“The bargaining team agreed last year,” he said, “that if Prop 58 passed the union would propose stipends.”

Eyebrows were raised in every corner of the teaching profession when voters approved Prop 58 by a 73.5 percent majority. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that teachers are finding a newfound spirit of teamwork in their districts.

Rodriguez said Pajaro Valley’s new superintendent is one of the district’s first bilingual leaders and has been very supportive. ABC, Ibarra added, has been especially helpful in ensuring that teaching materials in both languages are up to Common Core standards.

“I’m encouraged,” Ramirez said, “that the L.A. district really wants to work with us. We aren’t getting the run-around.”

— By Steve Weingarten, CFT Reporter

CFT launches online toolkit for ELL community

The CFT English Language Learners Committee has compiled a comprehensive listing of resources available to teachers, parents and community members. From the AFT’s topnotch learning resource Colorín Colorado to the plethora of statistics available through the state Department of Education’s DataQuest, you will find it all in the online toolkit.