As more and more students who don’t speak English register for public school this summer, school districts across the country are racing to hire bilingual teachers, and sometimes looking abroad for candidates.
Global events—such as a wave of refugees from the Middle East and undocumented minors from Central America—and continued growth among the Latino population have led to higher levels of students who don’t speak English. But there’s been a shortage of bilingual teachers for years.
“This is not a new phenomenon, it’s a structural dysfunction of the U.S. education system,” said Santiago Wood, the executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education, an advocacy group in Washington D.C. “The federal government does not give any priority attention to this area.”
The number of English Language Learners (a broader group that includes English as a Second Language students) in the U.S. has risen from about five percent of all K-12 public school students in 1990 to more than 10 percent of students today. Of those ELL students, 71 percent speak Spanish, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute.
A landmark 1974 Supreme Court case found that public schools are required to accommodate all students who don’t speak English. According to federal regulations, any grade with at least 20 percent of students who aren’t native English speakers must provide some form of bilingual instruction. But for decades, schools in many states haven’t had the funding to meet that requirement.
Teachers need to be certified in bilingual teaching, a course that can take two years and be prohibitively expensive for many. While there used to be federal scholarships available for teachers to get that training, most of that funding has dried up, Wood said. “There are so many competent, capable, highly qualified teachers out there who want to get their bilingual teaching certificate but just don’t have the resources to get it,” he said.
States and school districts are now taking the search for bilingual teachers into their own hands. Connecticut passed a bill last month reducing the stringent requirements for bilingual teachers to help more of them get approved to teach. In Texas, some districts are approving pay bonuses for bilingual teachers. Officials at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the district with the highest number of English Language Learners in the country, also announced plans this weekend to expand bilingual Spanish education to more schools.
Some districts are sending officials to Mexico or Puerto Rico to find qualified bilingual Spanish teachers. The Oklahoma City school district recruited 14 bilingual teachers from Puerto Rico and held a big welcoming ceremony at the local airport earlier this month. The teachers, whose yearlong positions are supported by private donations, brought their families with them. “At the beginning I cried because I was—we were thinking about moving to Oklahoma five years ago so it was the greatest thing of our life,” Wilmiaris Ruiz, one of the new recruits, told News9.
For many districts, however, it’s languages other than Spanish that are most in demand. Facing growing numbers of refugees from places like Iraq and Myanmar, the Lincoln, Neb. school district budgeted $1.2 million this month to hire more English Language Learner teachers, as well as bilingual liaisons to help families keep in touch with their schools. Most of the new students are young, in kindergarten and first grade, officials said.
And the rising numbers of kids who speak languages other than English and Spanish are shaking up arrangements in southern states more used to serving Spanish-speaking students. The ubiquity of Spanish bilingual programs in Dallas didn’t help students like Melinda Cowart’s daughter, who was adopted from Guangzhou, China. When she started first grade in 2010, speaking barely any English, she was placed in a class with 25 other students, and wasn’t given a specific English as a Second Language class.
“I asked the teacher what teaching methods she was going to use for my daughter,” Cowart, a former ESL teacher, told Fusion. “She said, ‘I’ll try to stand close to her when I’m explaining a concept.’ That’s not an appropriate teaching strategy!”
Meanwhile, as refugee and immigrant kids struggle to receive adequate English education, more and more parents want to get their English-speaking kids into bilingual or immersion education programs. One successful dual language program in Dallas paired English-speaking kids with Spanish-speaking kids, who then help each other learn the other's language. In districts around California, there are dual immersion programs in Spanish, Mandarin, Korean, Cantonese, and Hmong.
“Like many other second-generation Latinos, we saw that from moment we put our child in daycare, what little Spanish she had, she was losing,” Claudia Morales, a district official in Salinas, Ca., told the Californian. For her daughter, a dual language program meant “learning and maintaining her heritage and language.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.