Richmond schools adapt to growing need for bilingual teachers
on December 10, 2015
It’s a sunny fall morning at Bayview Elementary in San Pablo. A class of second graders listens attentively as their teacher, Jose Luis Gomez, reads a story.
They’re seated in clusters of four, facing the front of the room. Colorful placards of each letter of the alphabet adorn the walls, English on one side, Spanish on the other.
Once he’s finished reading, Gomez tells his students to take out a pencil and a notebook. It’s time for a vocabulary lesson to practice new words they heard in the story, he says in Spanish.
The first word: exquisito, or exquisite.
“¿Qué es exquisito? (What is exquisite?)” Gomez asks.
A dozen small hands shoot up. Almost everyone is eager to answer: “Rico.” “Delicioso.” “Fantástico.”
Now it’s their turn to use exquisito in a sentence, Gomez says. “Remember that every sentence starts with a capital letter and finishes with … ¿Con qué termina?” he asks, switching back to Spanish at the end.
“Un punto,” his students answer. A period.
Gomez teaches in one of West Contra Costa Unified School District’s bilingual classrooms. He’s been an elementary school teacher for 12 years but it’s his first time teaching in the United States. Originally from Mexico, Gomez is one of eight new bilingual teachers recruited from Spain and Mexico.
Richmond and surrounding cities have not escaped the teacher shortage facing the rest of California, but the problem here is different than in many other school districts: a shortage of bilingual teachers. In order to fill vacancies for bilingual teachers this school year, the district turned to a state-run visitor-exchange program.
In part to cope with the influx of so many Spanish-speaking newcomers, while at the same time meeting the language needs of longtime residents, school officials are recruiting specialized talent as far away as Spain.
The visiting teachers come under short-time work visas and are expected to stay in the district for one to three years.
The need for more teachers who speak Spanish is growing fast, said Ken Whittemore, the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources.
During economic downturns in the state, many teachers were laid off and fewer people went into the profession. “Now it seems that you know the pendulum hasn’t caught back up,” Whittemore said.
During the past few years, hundreds of new students have arrived from Central American countries and Mexico, swelling enrollment of native Spanish-speakers at Richmond High and other district schools. Additionally, some of the district’s elementary school programs for English learners require Spanish-speaking teachers.
Language needs change as the area’s population changes. School officials speculate that they may soon need to recruit teachers qualified in languages spoken by refugees arriving from the Middle East. Already, Asian languages are frequently heard in district schools. However, right now the big need involves Spanish speakers.
The only bilingual teachers imported through the state program are those who speak Spanish and English. At the same time, officials are taking a fresh look at how bilingual education should best be done. Last year the school board approved a new “master plan for English learners,” created by community members, teachers and administrators.
About one-third of students in West Contra Costa need special help learning English. Four out of five of those students are native Spanish speakers, according to public data collected by the California Department of Education.
The teacher shortage in the West Contra Costa district was exacerbated by a mandatory reduction in class size. Classrooms in kindergarten to third grade are now limited to 24 students. Humphrey Kiuruwi, principal at Bayview Elementary, said this meant his school needed two more teachers this year.
“Teachers who are credentialed to teach Spanish are just really hard to find in California,” Kiuruwi said. “It’s really complex to be able to teach somebody who is bilingual. It puts a lot more on the teacher.”
All of Gomez’s students are English learners. He teaches in a program known as “transitional bilingual education,” which starts out using mostly Spanish to make students literate, then transitions to full English by third grade. Parents can opt to put their children in this program when they first enroll at a school.
Another alternative is known as “dual immersion,” where the goal is to make students bilingual and biliterate in both English and Spanish.
The transitional approach is offered at many elementary schools in Richmond, while parents who prefer dual immersion, which requires more resources, can enroll their children in only two elementary schools, Washington and Stewart. The choice usually hinges on which school families are assigned to and if parents feel the program will benefit their children.
Gomez typically gets those who’ve grown up speaking Spanish at home.
In lower grades, many students who are English learners were born in the United States but reside in homes where English was rarely spoken or was one of many languages spoken.
“Although many of them speak English also, I think that they prefer to speak in Spanish,” Gomez said.
Recruiting teachers from other countries to fill bilingual positions in Richmond is just the first step toward solving a complicated problem, in which the choice of language is only one key component.
The new teachers face a daunting challenge. Student scores are tracked through a new statewide “Common Core” set of uniform standards. The state tests show a wide achievement gap between English learners and their English-proficient peers, a pattern seen in the old tests as well.
Cesar Dante, a teacher from Spain, teaches transitional bilingual third grade at Cesar Chavez Elementary. He said he realized early on that his students were below grade level, based on the Common Core standards.
“There is a huge gap and that’s hard,” Dante said.
For high school students it’s more challenging. Students who are English learners have to pass through four or five levels of English development in order to be deemed proficient. The goal is one level per year. However, high school students starting in lower levels have less time to reach fluency. At the same time, they must pass other classes in order to graduate.
In the beginning levels of the language program, high school students take two periods of English language development (ELD). Students in level four take one ELD class and one English class with the rest of their peers. In those English classes they receive help from “writer coaches” if needed.
Richmond High School is classified as 85 percent “Latino and Hispanic” and one-third of the student body is considered to be still learning English. (“Latino” refers to someone who traces his or her heritage to a Latin American country. “Hispanic” refers to someone from any country whose primary language is Spanish.)
In the hallways of Richmond High, casual conversation happens in what sounds like an equal mix of English and Spanish, as many students switch freely from one language to the other, often in the same breath.
Richmond High Principal José A. De León said educators try to offer two core classes in Spanish for English learners in the introductory levels of the language program.
“Some years we’re more successful than others,” he said, adding that much depends on the availability of qualified teachers fluent in Spanish.
In order to teach in another language besides English, teachers need a bilingual certification. Although there are already teachers at West Contra Costa schools who hold these credentials and teach bilingual classes, there aren’t enough.
This year, Richmond High has two new bilingual math teachers, recruited from Spain through the exchange program. One of them, Jose Luis Cebrian Marquez, said he’s realizing that without a geometry class in Spanish, it would be much more difficult for many of his students to learn.
“They are already frustrated sometimes when they don’t understand the task…So when they understand everything that they need to do, they are learning, they feel really self-confident,” Cebrian said.
Some students have told him they could finally navigate through the math with the language issue solved. But it wasn’t always easy at first—even for the teacher. The Spanish Cebrian speaks is a little bit different from the Spanish spoken by his students, many of whom are from Central America and Mexico, where some words and expressions vary from one place to the next.
One example, Cebrian said, is the word chequear, meaning “to check.” In Spain, the word would be “comprobar” if a teacher wanted to tell someone to check his or her work.
“At the beginning I used to say comprobar and now I am telling chequear all the time,” he said. “We are adapting ourselves to the vocabulary that they used to use.”
Teachers in the exchange program in some ways are becoming students, too. They all have years of teaching experience and credentials from their home countries. During their time here they are expected to take tests to earn the credentials California requires of its teachers. This would give them an advantage if they want to participate in the exchange program again.
It’s also the first time many of them are teaching in English as well as Spanish. They want to take back home the skills they’ve learned in their Richmond classrooms.
Jose Luis Gomez, from Bayview Elementary, said he’s here for the opportunity to improve his English and his teaching.
“When I go back to my country I want to share all the things that I could learn here,” he said.
Kiuruwi, principal at Bayview, said the transitional bilingual program and bilingual teachers help the school understand the needs of their Spanish-speaking families.
“When we’re putting out literature to families or when we’re doing announcements…we have it in Spanish, too. We don’t think twice,” he said. “Everything that we do, we do it in Spanish too.”
However, the program is not as popular as he thinks it could be. “I’m surprised that we don’t have more parents in the TBE program,” Kiuruwi said. “It doesn’t feel like parents have completely bought into it, because for me if you’re a native Spanish speaker it would be like a no-brainer.”
Stephanie Sequeira is a parent at Chavez Elementary and a member of the Multilingual District Advisory Committee, which advises the school board on education for English-learner students. She said some parents get confused about what happens in the transitional bilingual program—some mistakenly believe it requires their children to be taught in both languages.
“There’s a stereotype that people come to this country saying, ‘You know, I want my daughter or son to learn all English, I don’t want to put them in there’ when they really need that extra support,” she said. “If all they speak at home is Spanish, then that class would be beneficial for them, but parents aren’t aware as to what the pros and the cons are for those classes specifically.”
This is one of the reasons Guadalupe Calvario, a parent at Nystrom Elementary, thinks schools need to work harder—in more languages besides English—to help parents understand how their children are being educated.
“You need to get these parents educated in their native language, so they understand what the problems are, what the issues are,” Calvario said.
The West Contra Costa district offers bilingual advice at a special RAP center—the initials stand for “Registration, Assessment and Placement”—to help parents, said Allison Huie, coordinator for K-12 English learner services. They are also working on a video in multiple languages.
Despite these services, parents and educators said that many families who might benefit don’t yet recognize the value of alternative programs such as transitional bilingual. There’s a proven value of knowing two languages, demonstrated by studies showing higher earnings for bilingual people.
Calvario grew up in Richmond and went to school in the area. She remembers the bilingual teachers and Spanish- and English-speaking classrooms during her childhood added much to the schools.
“I think it would totally benefit a lot, because it would serve the kids that are not being served at this time,” she said.
Kiuruwi said valuing the languages and diverse cultures students bring to their classrooms helps create a better school environment.
A transitional bilingual program helps kids realize that value because they’re learning in that language, Kiuruwi added.
“I think its something that’s going to take a little bit more time, because I think that educating people in their native language is something that’s very, very new,” he said.
Programs like the teacher exchange are helping fill this need, but the new teachers are here for only a few years at a time. The district is already holding job fairs to recruit teachers for the coming school year. And bilingual teachers are in high demand.
In Gomez’s second grade classroom, the students excitedly share sentences using a new word they learned: exquisito.
“El pozole que hizo mi abuelita está exquisito,” one girl says, commenting on her grandmother’s tasty cooking.
At the end, Gomez asks if everyone understands what exquisito means. “¿Todos entendieron que es exquisito?”
In unison his students answer: “Sí.”
Lección aprendida. Lesson learned.
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