The Texas Education Agency reported the number of students enrolled in bilingual programming surpassed 1 million for the first time in the 2016-17 school year. Districts across the state are struggling to hire certified bilingual teachers to keep up with the growing demand.

In the same academic year, there was one bilingual and English as a second language teacher for every 47 bilingual and ESL students statewide. According to the TEA, nearly 15 percent of all Cy-Fair ISD students are enrolled in bilingual and ESL programming.

Bilingual programs are based on requirements laid out in the Texas Education Code, which states that districts with at least 20 students of limited English proficiency in the same grade level should be offered a bilingual education.

CFISD meets this criteria for Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic and Urdu, said Linda Macias, associate superintendent of curriculum, instruction and accountability. However, there are not enough certified bilingual teachers in the district to meet each of these demands.

“It is an issue across the state, and it’s been an issue for a while,” she said. “We don’t have enough [bilingual] teachers … so we work at filling those positions but prioritize the lower grades first.”

Districts unable to hire sufficient certified bilingual teachers are required to submit an application for exception, including an action plan to address the shortage and to meet the needs of its limited English proficiency students.

Macias said this year’s submission reported a shortage of 14 bilingual teachers in the district based on the number of elementary classrooms with bilingual students. To help fill the gap, bilingual teachers are paired with ESL teachers, and each group of students splits their time between the two.

“If we didn’t have that set up, it would be a much higher number,” she said.

Students must qualify for this type of education program based on how they perform on an oral proficiency test at the beginning of the school year. However, even when students score “limited English proficiency,” parents can deny the services.

Because CFISD only has the capacity to offer Spanish bilingual services, students who speak other languages have access to ESL services. For instance, Macias said the district has two Vietnamese teachers who regularly visit campuses with large Vietnamese populations to offer support services.

Macias said in prioritizing pre-K through second grade, the district’s goal is to prepare bilingual and ESL students to transition to the mainstream classroom as soon as possible. Most exits from the program take place in second or third grade, she said.

District officials recruit from all over the state to fill open positions. Because bilingual teachers are considered a “critical need” in the district, benefits like a $3,500 stipend are available in CFISD.

“We have postings, but we can’t find the teachers,” Macias said.

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

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

In 2016-17, the BTLPT had a 64 percent first-time passing rate—one of the lowest among Texas teacher certification tests, according to the TEA.

“It’s an additional certification to be able to teach bilingual education,” Macias said. “Certainly the population has grown a lot, and in Cy-Fair, we are selective with the teachers that we hire.”

Because bilingual instruction happens in both English and Spanish, Macias said the district wants to ensure candidates are strong in both languages.

In addition to boosting recruitment efforts, increased funding from the state could help lower classroom sizes and improve the language learning process, she said.

“It’s a population that is very able and capable of being successful,” Macias said. “We just need to make sure we have the appropriate teachers in there and the appropriate funds to support them.”

Additional reporting by Marie Albiges