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A program that prepares bilingual teachers for the growing number of dual-language classrooms in California is set to end this month, potentially worsening a chronic bilingual teacher shortage.
School districts in California have struggled for years to hire teachers with bilingual credentials. That’s a major obstacle to achieving the state’s goal, under the Global California 2030 Initiative, to enroll half of all K-12 students in “programs that lead to proficiency in two or more languages” by 2030.
The same initiative has set a goal to increase the number of new bilingual teacher credentials from 700 in 2015-16 to 2,000 in 2029-30. In 2019-20, 1,075 bilingual credentials were issued, according to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
A survey of California districts in 2017 found that more than half reported a shortage of bilingual teachers and that most teachers who had bilingual credentials were teaching in English-only classrooms. That was largely because voters had passed an initiative in 1998 that limited bilingual education in the state. Though the state has since increased the number of bilingual teachers, in a fall 2020 survey of officials from eight of the largest school districts and nine small, rural districts in the state, the Learning Policy Institute found that most districts still needed more bilingual teachers.
“There’s only so far we can go with a 2030 vision if we don’t have teachers who can staff the classrooms,” said Anya Hurwitz, executive director of Sobrato Early Academic Language, or SEAL, a nonprofit organization that provides training and assistance to help preschools and K-12 school districts across the state implement strong bilingual programs.
When voters repealed the law limiting bilingual education in 2016, the state began trying to increase the number of bilingual teachers. One way was by setting up the Bilingual Teacher Professional Development Program in 2018, a program whose funding is set to expire June 30.
Under the program, eight county offices of education and school districts offered college-level courses in bilingual education, coaching and other services to prepare teachers to work in bilingual classrooms. According to the California Department of Education, the program helped 353 teachers work toward their bilingual credentials as of April 23, 2021, and it helped prepare an additional 392 teachers who already had their bilingual credentials but had been teaching only in English.
“There’s only so far we can go with a 2030 vision if we don’t have teachers who can staff the classrooms,” said Anya Hurwitz, executive director of SEAL.
Oak Grove School District in San Jose is one of the districts that has benefited from the teacher development program. Before 2016, the district only had a few bilingual programs for English learners in kindergarten through third grade. Since Proposition 58 passed, allowing more bilingual education, the district has been converting those programs into full dual-language-immersion programs that teach all students two languages, from transitional kindergarten to sixth grade, and will eventually expand up to eighth grade.
As the district has expanded its bilingual programs, it has looked for ways to fill the demand for more teachers. Through the professional development program, the district was able to hire teachers who already had experience in the district and already spoke two languages but either didn’t have a bilingual credential or had been teaching only in English.
“Especially for teachers who had been outside of bilingual education for, in some cases, decades, the program was a real shot in the arm to be in the community again and learn what has transpired since they left,” said Amy Boles, director of the Educational Services Division for Oak Grove, who leads the district’s bilingual teacher professional development program and collaborates with other districts statewide.
Some school districts have created their own programs to prepare bilingual teachers. Teacher Delmy Monterrosa participated in a micro-credentialing program in dual-language education offered by Los Angeles Unified. The program gives teachers who already have a teaching credential extra specialization in dual-immersion instruction. Monterrosa has been a teacher for four years, but the 2020-21 school year was her first as a dual-language teacher and the first year that a dual-language program was offered at her campus. She teaches second graders in a Spanish dual-immersion classroom at Trinity Street Elementary, which is located in South Central Los Angeles.
She credited the district’s micro-credentialing program with offering the support she needed this past year by creating “a community of educators” who share their experiences and ideas, which eased the pressures she felt going into the school year.
“It has dramatically changed my teaching style,” Monterrosa said. “I’ve become more aware and more passionate about how the students learn. And so it really has triggered a little bit of how I plan to just reinvent myself next year.”
One thing she learned is that a dual-language classroom is not only about the language skills a student learns, but also about helping students and their families remain connected to their cultures.
“We’re focusing on bilingualism and biliteracy and academic achievement, but we also want to focus on being socially and culturally competent, where we strive to get to know our students on a much deeper level,” beyond the basics of learning how to read, Monterrosa said.
Martha Hernandez, executive director of Californians Together, an organization that promotes access to quality education for the state’s English learners, said school districts have a great resource in their own alumni and could begin recruiting students at the high school level to become bilingual teachers. More than 330,000 high school graduates have earned a State Seal of Biliteracy by showing they can speak, read and write in two or more languages since the program began in 2012.
“Even if 10% of those students decided to pursue a profession in education, I think we could really make great gains and really expand biliteracy programs across the state,” Hernandez said.
But in order to do that, she said, districts need funding to help prepare those students. A long list of nonprofit organizations have been calling for $5 million in the 2021-22 budget to renew the Bilingual Teacher Professional Development Program, but the funding was not included in the budget passed by the Legislature on June 14. Gov. Gavin Newsom and legislators are expected to continue negotiating the budget over the next two weeks.
Former L.A. Unified student Angela Martinez immigrated to California at the age of 7 from her home in southern Mexico. At the time, she mainly spoke the indigenous language Zapoteco and some Spanish. In California, she was enrolled in an English and Spanish dual-language program at Grand View Boulevard Elementary. She remained in dual-language immersion through middle school.
The experience impacted her so much that Martinez, now 20, plans to become a teacher and lead her own dual-language classroom one day.
“It felt like such a big deal to me because it was conserving my culture, my language, and not losing that ability to speak and write it and read it,” Martinez said. “I think it’s something to be embraced and something to be celebrated and something to feel proud of, to say, ‘Yes, I’m bilingual. I can speak Spanish, and I can speak English.’”
Advocates hope that districts will be able to use funding from other areas to build a more robust bilingual teacher workforce. The Teacher Residency Program did get a significant increase in funding, and that money can be used particularly for subjects that need more teachers, like bilingual education. In addition, the budget includes $10 million for grants that go directly to school districts to begin or expand dual-immersion or bilingual programs, which could potentially include preparing teachers.
“I hope that we’ve learned from history because we know that at one time in our history in terms of bilingual education, there was a shortage, and we began to hire teachers who were not qualified to teach in those programs, and thus, programs were not as high quality as they should have been,” Hernandez said.
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