As Hays, San Marcos CISD dual-language programs grow, officials look for ways around bilingual teacher shortage

Daisy Saenz teaches a second-grade dual language class at Blanco Vista Elementary School.

Daisy Saenz teaches a second-grade dual language class at Blanco Vista Elementary School.

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Bilingual teachers in short supply, TEA shows
Image description
Bilingual teachers in short supply, TEA shows
Image description
Bilingual teachers in short supply, TEA shows
Native Spanish speaker Jazmina Sandoval said as a child, she felt a language barrier while in school.

“I always felt like I was sheltered from my other peers that were only English-speaking,” she said during a recent Bilingual Education Students Organization meeting at Texas State University, explaining she began learning in a dual-language classroom and slowly transitioned to an English-speaking classroom. Now she said she is becoming a bilingual teacher to give students opportunities she never had as a child.

“I want to be able to show [students] that even though my first language is Spanish, I’m still capable of doing things, and so are you.”

As the Texas Education Agency reports the number of children enrolled in a public school bilingual program tops 1 million, Sandoval knows she will not have to look hard for a job once she graduates next year, because the number of students in need of a bilingual education far exceeds the number of certified bilingual teachers coming out of college each year.

According to the Texas Education Agency, there is one bilingual/ESL teacher hired for every 47 students enrolled in a bilingual/ESL program this school year, so Central Texas school districts are battling for first dibs on hiring college students like Sandoval.

Roxanne Cuellar Allsup, an associate professor of bilingual education at Texas State, said her students get “snapped up right away” by recruiters at job fairs and during their student teaching semesters.

“You really have the opportunity to go wherever you want because [school districts] need [bilingual teachers] so badly,” she tells her students.

Some of the senior Texas State bilingual education majors have already felt the effects of the teacher shortage. One was offered a letter of intent, an interview and a job at Houston ISD, all in the span of one job fair. The same student was told by a current teacher not to get her master’s degree, that it would be a waste of time and money, and she should start teaching now.

Another student said she was promised a job while doing her observational hours, typically done during a student’s junior year.

Overcoming the tests

Some bilingual education experts say one reason the state is not producing many bilingual educators is because of the rigorous Bilingual Teacher Language Proficiency Test, or BTLPT, which tests the candidate’s ability to read, speak, listen and write in Spanish.  Candidates must receive a minimum score of 240 out of 300 to pass.

In 2010, the BTLPT replaced the Texas Oral Proficiency Test. The BTLPT requires potential teachers to be able to, for example, write a lesson plan and perform a post-lesson evaluation in Spanish.

In 2016-17, the BTLPT had a 64 percent first-time passing rate.

Ana Coca, president of the Texas Association of Bilingual Educators, said the test places too much emphasis on content and not enough language. She said the difficulty of the test is even deterring some people from pursuing a career in bilingual education, and they go the generalist teacher route instead.

“Nobody has really told the state that the universities are struggling with the bilingual certification,” she said, adding she and others with TABE are gathering data for the TEA on the low BTLPT passing rates and lack of bilingual education major graduating from college.

“It’s a crapshoot,” said Sean Fox, Hays CISD Blanco Vista Elementary School principal. “We’ve lost recruits because of the test.”

Laurie Weaver, a dual-language professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, disagrees, saying the BTLPT is laborious for a reason.

“Some of the [school] districts would like it to be an easier test so more teachers could be bilingually certified,” she said. “On the other side, people say, ‘But don’t we want our teachers to have a good command of the language?’ If you gave this kind of a test in English and people didn’t do well on it, would you want them to be a teacher?”

Judith Marquez, who also teaches bilingual education at UHCL, said some of her students have taken several attempts to pass the test.

“Part of what makes it difficult for some students is that lack of experience within the classroom that would help them develop a lesson plan,” she said.

Recruitment strategies

At San Marcos CISD, Assistant Superintendent Willie Watson is looking for six to eight teachers to teach bilingual education in three grades at four campuses as the district adds dual-language sections.

He said in its first year, the SMCISD two-way dual-language program—made up of an even split of monolingual Spanish and monolingual English speakers—is thriving, with 140 students currently enrolled at Bowie, De Zavala, Hernandez and Mendez elementary schools. The district’s plan is to grow the program by one grade level every year. Additionally, there are plans to add dual-language programs to Travis and Crockett elementary schools, but not in the 2018-19 school year.

“[The dual-language program is] very popular, and we see the advantages even in this first year,” Watson said, adding parents have been calling the district to enroll their students in the program. Students whose first language is Spanish are automatically placed in the dual-language program, while English-dominant speakers must apply.

Watson is in charge of teacher recruitment and said the district has had to be “more creative” in how it finds and hires bilingual teachers this year.

He has attended and will continue to attend several job fairs—including one in El Paso and outside of Texas—to find bilingual teachers, and in December, he hired four bilingual education graduates who graduated in December ahead of the 2018-19 school year.

“We wanted to get in front of [the shortage],” he said, explaining the teachers are paid as paraprofessionals and serve as teacher aides until they receive all of their certifications and can be hired as full-time bilingual teachers.

In February the SMCISD board of trustees entered an agreement with Texas State that allows students pursuing their master’s degree to serve as regular classroom teachers, and for every three fellows hired, the district will employ one exchange, or mentor, teacher who will model teach, collaborate on lesson planning, discuss classroom-management issues and provide feedback to the fellows.

The partnership will save the district about $11,000. The district will pay Texas State the equivalent of two first-year teacher salaries—about $94,000—with no additional benefit costs. Texas State will use that money to distribute the $18,000 stipends as well as cover the program administration costs, fellows’ tuition and fees, and mileage for exchange teachers. Texas State will also provide worker’s compensation and the option to purchase low-cost health benefits through the University Health Center.

And last fall, SMCISD increased its bilingual teacher stipend from $2,500 to $4,000 in an effort to stay competitive.

Preparing teachers early

Watson said the next step in recruitment is to encourage high school students to become interested in teaching and hopefully—through incentives like the guarantee of a contract—they will come teach at SMICSD after receiving their degrees and certifications.

HCISD, whose bilingual program began in 2003 with a two-way dual-language program at Tobias Elementary School, was seen as the pioneer of bilingual education when it first started, according to Patricia Melgar-Cook, HCISD director of bilingual/ESL and migrant programs.

She said while HCISD does not struggle in finding bilingual teachers as much as the previous school district she worked in—Bastrop ISD—a good way to recruit more teachers is to broaden students’ career pathways at the high school level and get them interested in teaching early.

Houston ISD, for example, has partnered with the University of Houston to offer loan forgiveness if an education major graduates and comes back to teach at HISD.

Fox said HCISD is a “tough sell” for teachers because of its geographic proximity to Austin, which he called a desirable city to live and work in.

He agreed with Melgar-Cook, saying recruitment should begin at the high school level.

“I think it comes down to, ‘Are we graduating our kids ready for college?’” he said.

HCISD improved the percentage of college- and career-ready graduates by 5.7 percent from 2014 to 2015, while San Marcos’ percentage of the same graduates dropped 4.4 percent year-over-year, according to TEA academic performance reports for each district.

Monica Ruiz-Mills, SMCISD assistant superintendent of teaching, learning and assessments, told the SMCISD board of trustees in January the district was working to improve that percentage by increasing participation in Advanced Placement classes and increasing dual-credit options by having teachers become adjunct professors who can teach dual-credit classes.

“All of those things will lend itself as we continue to establish this culture of high, rigorous academics,” she said.