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Dual-language immersion

Teacher shortage threatens to crumble popular dual-language schools that WCCUSD built over years

on November 3, 2022

Fourth grade dual-language immersion teacher Wendy Gonzalez has been fighting for bilingual education since 1998, often feeling that the school district treated it as more of an afterthought.

A teacher shortage in the West Contra Costa Unified School District has exacerbated the problem, she said, leaving dual-language immersion in a precarious place. 

“If we don’t have support, it’s going to fail,” she said. “It’s going to crumble.”

Three elementary schools — Washington, Stewart and Downer — use the dual-language immersion method in which students learn in both English and a target language, which is Spanish at all three schools. This year, the schools have struggled to fill teaching positions, resulting in combined classes, temporary substitutes and, in Stewart’s case, a parent with emergency credentials teaching.

“We live in a global society, right?” said Gonzalez, who teaches at Downer. “So, you know, it’s not enough to just know one language.”

A study conducted by the Rand Corp. in 2017 found DLI programs in Portland, Oregon, not only allowed students to become proficient in two languages, but also had positive effects on reading test scores and helped English learners reach English proficiency at higher rates. 

Dual-language immersion
Teacher Wendy Gonzalez stands by a a painted image of herself on a mural at Downer Elementary School in San Pablo. (Cara Nixon)

For some families, DLI is also a way for children to connect with their culture or speak bilingually both at home and at school. 

Daniel Garza, parent of a third grader at Stewart, is Latino, and his wife is Filipina. He said they both “dropped the ball” on ensuring their son, Caleb, speaks a language besides English. The program has been a way for him to learn those skills. 

But when Caleb walked into his first day of school this year, he didn’t have a teacher. The district didn’t inform the family, but a Stewart teacher messaged Garza with the news the day before school started.

“They haven’t let anybody know yet,” Garza recalled reading in the message. “But your son’s going to start class tomorrow, and there’s no teacher right now for his grade.’”

According to Garza, Caleb had a temporary substitute and was held in a second grade classroom for a bit while the district figured out a longer-term solution. Now Stewart’s kindergarten and third-grade DLI classes share two teachers who switch classrooms mid-day. The Spanish teacher is a parent with emergency credentials, and the English teacher was transferred from another school. 

This change prompted a switch from the 90-10 model Stewart had employed, where Spanish was used in the early grades 90% of the time, gradually decreasing in later grades to 50%. Now the school is using a 50-50 model across-the-board, with Spanish taught for half the day and English taught for the other half. 

“The transition to a temporary 50-50 model will help maintain DLI programs and support all DLI students to achieve full conversational and academic proficiency in both languages,” said Liz Sanders, district spokesperson. 

Garza said Caleb has always enjoyed school, but called the beginning of this year “a waste of time,” telling his father he had done easy math and had a long recess. He wanted to stay home from school and even feigned illness to get out of going. 

Garza has considered transferring Caleb to Washington’s DLI program, but that school is struggling, too, and Garza said he was told Washington could not take more students. 

Shallon Santiago, WCCUSD’s Parent Teacher Association vice president, also has considered alternatives for her two kids who attend Stewart’s DLI program: Christian, who is in third grade, and Ava, who is in first grade.

Some students are moving their children to private schools, Santiago said. But she sees that as a last resort.

“I personally believe in the public school system, and I really want to support it,” she said. “And so, it’s hard for me to make that jump to private school. But we will if education is on the line. We have to do what’s right for our children.”

Santiago said she feels this issue is specific to DLI programs because they are underfunded and require special bilingual teaching credentials.

“Based on how the law has changed just in the past few years, I would imagine that many districts that might want to offer bilingual programs for the first time would hesitate to set those programs, knowing that there likely isn’t the supply of bilingual certified teachers to teach in those programs.”

Desiree Carver-Thomas, learning policy institute

Superintendent Kenneth “Chris” Hurst said the district is looking at both short-term and long-term solutions to DLI staffing shortages. As a stop-gap, the district has had to combine classes and move teachers to schools that need them, which he acknowledged are not the best solutions.

“But the reality is, we have schools that are not staffed appropriately and they have vacancies, so we had to move some of those teachers to those schools,” Hurst said.

In the long term, Hurst said the district plans to negotiate pay, partner with university teacher preparation programs to entice graduates to come to WCCUSD, and possibly implement a “grow-your-own” model, which focuses on recruiting high school students, paraprofessionals and staff to become teachers.

“To all students, families, and staff who are being directly impacted, we apologize for the impact that this has had on your students and your school community,” Sanders said. “We have created and implemented procedural safeguards to better address any future staffing shortages.”

Desiree Carver-Thomas, an education researcher with the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto, said some of the DLI staffing issues stem from the now repealed Proposition 227 that voters passed in 1998. The measure forced students with limited English proficiency into classes taught in English. As a result, districts eliminated many bilingual programs. Proposition 227 was repealed in 2016. After the change, teacher preparation programs offered bilingual certifications again.  

“So it’s likely that the supply of bilingual teachers or teachers who are certified to teach bilingual education will lag behind the demand for those programs,” said Carver-Thomas, who has experience working with WCCUSD.

The teacher shortage, which is a nationwide problem, may be affecting dual-language education in two ways, Carver-Thomas said. Districts may be unable to fill dual-language positions or they may not be creating those positions because they know they will have a hard time filling them.

“Based on how the law has changed just in the past few years, I would imagine that many districts that might want to offer bilingual programs for the first time would hesitate to set those programs, knowing that there likely isn’t the supply of bilingual certified teachers to teach in those programs,” she said. 

Gonzalez, the Downer DLI teacher, said another problem affecting the DLI programs in WCCUSD is that there’s no director position. She said some districts have someone designated to help with DLI program recruitment, training and curriculum, making the programs sustainable. But WCCUSD only has a coach. 

Ruby Ortega, a second grade DLI teacher at Stewart, said there are bigger issues at play, namely that teachers don’t feel valued in the district. She said the district, which saw 200 teachers leave in the last school year, is going to lose more teachers unless it increases pay.

“We’re not being paid or valued what we deserve or what we feel like we deserve,” she said.

Carver-Thomas said districts, the state and the federal government all play a role in addressing this issue. She said districts that have either increased salaries or offered housing incentives or other bonuses have had more success with teacher retention.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez worries that language programs will be dismantled while the district tries to figure out a solution.

“That’s my biggest fear,” she said. “And I see it coming.”

‘Where’s my teacher?’ Students and parents want to know why WCCUSD hasn’t filled dozens of teacher vacancies

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