Spanish-speaking teachers getting special training to meet California’s demand for more bilingual teachers

August 21, 2017

The Vista del Valle Dual Language Academy in San Fernando is one of more than 100 dual-language programs operated by Los Angeles Unified. It provides instruction in both English and Spanish to students in grades K-5.

Native Spanish speakers who have been teaching in English-only classrooms are the focus of specialized training in many districts across California to meet the increased demand for bilingual teachers.

“We have a lot of teachers who at one point were bilingual who are now teachers of English-only classes,” said Maria Maldonado, Fresno Unified’s assistant superintendent for English learner services.  “Our bilingual teachers need a lot of support. Many are native speakers of Spanish, so their Spanish is quite casual. We want high-level academic language.”

Fresno and many other districts throughout the state are adding back bilingual programs as a result of the passage last November of Prop. 58, which ended a mandate for mostly English-only classes for students who come to school speaking other languages.

That mandate dates to 1998 when voters approved Prop. 227, the state’s “English in Public Schools” initiative. That’s when Fresno shut down most of its more than 20 bilingual programs.

Now, Fresno and other districts are looking to add to their bilingual teaching staffs, but they are hard-pressed to find teachers who not only can teach in formal, academic Spanish, but are also up-to-speed on the state’s more rigorous Common Core standards in math and English language arts, along with standards for teaching English learners and new Next Generation Science Standards.

Fresno’s Maldonado estimates the district has about 300 bilingual teachers, including more than 200 who “are not utilizing their bilingual credentials and their skills.”

Similarly, Los Angeles Unified is also planning to harness the potential of its out-of-practice bilingual teachers, who include more than 3,000 Spanish-speakers, said Hilda Maldonado, executive director of the Los Angeles district’s multilingual and multicultural education department (no relation to Fresno’s Maria Maldonado).

“We need to work out a plan for how we’re going to do that,” she said. “There’s a bunch of teachers who are not using their bilingual credentials,” she added, saying the district needs to offer incentives to them so they can improve their knowledge of new teaching methods.

To help districts train educators for bilingual programs, the state’s 2017-18 budget includes $5 million for new Bilingual Professional Development Program grants. The funds must be used to help train bilingual teachers who have been in English-only classrooms for more than three years transition back into bilingual settings or to help bilingual instructional assistants become teachers.

Bilingual program administrators in districts with high percentages of English learners — such as Fresno Unified, Los Angeles Unified and Santa Ana Unified — plan to apply for the competitive grants once details are issued by the state Department of Education.

Meanwhile, Fresno and other districts are providing their own training to bilingual teachers, or are working with universities and other organizations that offer specialized training. For the past three years, Fresno has worked with trainers from the nonprofit WestEd educational consulting organization who have provided training to teachers of English learners in nine elementary schools and one middle school. In addition, district administrators and teacher coaches have attended the trainings so that they can pass on what they’ve learned to teachers at other schools, Maria Maldonado added.

She said the bilingual teachers were getting special training to teach students who came to school speaking Spanish. Many of the teachers were new to teaching to Common Core standards in Spanish and they need to brush up on formal Spanish.

In the WestEd training, teachers learn to ask open-ended questions and require students to talk to each other about what they are learning, so they improve their vocabularies and communications skills. Teachers also require students to write about what they have learned, presenting evidence from their lessons. These strategies emphasize critical thinking and language development skills.

A first step for Los Angeles is training the teachers who will be working in the district’s 16 new dual language programs starting this year, said Hilda Maldonado. With these new classes, the district’s bilingual programs will grow to more than 100.

Besides in-house training, the district also sent a dozen bilingual teachers to a two-week summer institute at CSU Dominguez Hills in June. And the district is partnering with a training program offered through UC Davis to help strengthen bilingual teachers’ abilities to teach Common Core standards in math and English language arts in formal Spanish by helping them build their vocabularies and their abilities to communicate with students verbally and in writing in both English and Spanish.

This was the second year CSU Dominguez Hills offered its institute, taught in Spanish, said Lilia Sarmiento, who helped develop the program. Participants included the university’s teacher candidates, instructional assistants and new and experienced bilingual teachers from four Los Angeles area districts.

The university is also one of several to receive a $250,000 grant from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to develop an integrated undergraduate teacher preparation program that will enable students to earn a bachelor’s degree, multiple subject credential and bilingual authorization in four years, starting in fall, 2018. The university is working with the Los Angeles district and others in the area to identify bilingual instructional assistants who may want to become teachers and is also trying to get the word out to bilingual high school students interested in teaching, Sarmiento said.

Courtesy of CSU Dominguez Hills

CSU Dominguez Hills Associate Professor Lilia Sarmiento works with students in a two-week summer institute for bilingual teachers.

And for bilingual teachers interested in furthering their educations, the university will launch a master’s in education program next spring with a dual language option and a certificate in dual language learning. Courses for these will all be taught in Spanish.

“This was done intentionally in order to provide multiple opportunities to help teachers with the language demands, especially when teaching (academic) content,” Sarmiento said. “These two programs will provide our students and teachers who have been teaching in English for many years an alternate pathway to earn their Bilingual Authorization and to develop leaders in the field.”

The UC Davis program partnering with Los Angeles Unified and several other California districts and county offices of education is funded through the state’s Department of Education with federal grants, including one aimed at improving teacher quality. Called SOAR — for Strategic Observation and Reflection — the training includes strategies for teaching math and English language arts aligned to the Common Core standards and the state’s English Language Development standards for English learners, which were based on ideas first presented in a book by the university researchers, called “Common Core Standards in Diverse Classrooms: Essential Practices for Developing Academic Language and Disciplinary Literacy.”

“A lot of the work we’ve been doing recently with the new (Prop. 58) Legislation has been to retrain teachers for bilingual classrooms,” said Susan O’Hara, who directs the program and co-authored the book. “It’s desperately needed. We know from research that building the literacy of kids in their first language is really the key thing that influences their acquisition of the English language and how they do academically.”

Santa Ana Unified offers dual immersion programs that provide lessons in two languages in eight elementary, middle and high schools — including a new elementary school program opened this year. The district has been training its bilingual teachers in Common Core instruction since 2014-15, said Alfonso Jimenez, the district’s assistant superintendent for K-12 teaching and learning. In addition, he said principals meets once a month to plan teacher training.

Courtesy of Santa Ana Unified/Theresa Cisneros

Third-graders in a dual immersion class taught in English and Spanish at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Santa Ana Unified work on a group activity.

Like Fresno and Los Angeles, Santa Ana also has a cadre of bilingual teachers who have been teaching in English-only classrooms for several years and may not be used to speaking formal, academic Spanish.

“Even though they have a bilingual authorization, they haven’t been using academic language for a long time,” Jimenez said. “I’m bilingual. When you don’t use it, you tend to lose fluency,” he said referring to formal Spanish and academic language.

He and other bilingual program directors said the state grants could help fund additional bilingual teacher training, but they speculated the $5 million would not meet the statewide need.

Maria Maldonado in Fresno said the grants are a step in the right direction.

“I think it’s an opportunity for the government to see there is a lot of interest,” she said, “and to consider providing more resources in the future.”

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