Latino Panel on Education Offers Ideas to Bridge Bilingual Gap

Times Staff Writer

Lynne Gadbury helps decide whether students with limited English skills also have learning disabilities that would qualify them for special education programs.

In the last school year in Long Beach, she said, she rejected almost half of the students that teachers recommended for special education and sent them back to regular classes.

Teachers said the children were not creative and were having trouble expressing themselves, Gadbury said. But she said the children, rather than being slow learners with disabilities, simply could not speak English. And most of their teachers could not communicate in the students' native language.

Growing Problem

The inability of students and teachers to communicate is a growing problem in the Long Beach Unified School District, officials acknowledge.

One of every four students in the district, including half of the Latino students, cannot speak English proficiently. But there are so few bilingual teachers that some special classes for non-English-speaking students are being taught by teachers who speak nothing but English, school officials say.

Alarmed by the shortage of bilingual teachers, and Latino students' low test scores and high dropout rate, a Hispanic Advisory Committee has submitted to the Board of Education a series of proposals, including a recommendation that all teachers and administrators at some schools be required to learn a second language.

Higher Pay Urged

The five-member committee also recommended that the board:

Pay bilingual teachers a higher salary.

Agree to an immediate increase of 10% to 20% in the number of minority and bilingual employees.

Encourage bilingual teacher aides to obtain teacher credentials. The committee's report did not offer a specific plan, but committee members said an internship program would be one possibility.

Because of the lack of bilingual teachers, many students who are not fluent in English often end up in regular classes, where they are "left to fend for themselves and sink or swim," committee member Jerome Torres said. "That's why our kids are doing so badly in the system."

Latino high school seniors in the district recorded below-average test scores last spring in the California Assessment Program. While the overall average for 12th-graders was 218 in reading and 234 in mathematics, Latinos averaged 198 in reading and 206 in math, according to district statistics.

"The system is failing in meeting the needs of these children. The district is monolingual and monocultural," Torres said.

Latino children face a bleak future unless the public school system can offer role models and teachers who can communicate with students, committee members and other Latino leaders said.

"What do we want for our future?" Edna Molina-Tobias, president of the Assn. of Hispanic Educators in Long Beach, said in an interview. "Do we want them to be busboys and grape pickers? Is that what we are destined to be?"

Most Were Receptive

Overall, school board members appeared receptive to the report, which board member Jenny Oropeza called excellent.

"For me, it's probably the most critical education issue we face in the Long Beach Unified School District," Oropeza said recently. "How are we going to teach these children who don't speak English? It's our responsibility. And I don't think we're doing it."

Board member Bobbie Smith said: "We know we have not done well in terms of reaching Hispanics and other limited-English speaking populations. But the district is working hard to recruit bilingual instructors and minorities."

A big part of the problem, district officials said, is the dearth of available minority and bilingual teachers. For example, while 29% of the district's students are Latino, only 4% of about 3,000 teachers are Latino, according to district statistics.

Officials say they are trying to hire more Latinos and Asians, but few are applying. Supt. E. Tom Giugni said that of 382 applications received in recent months, 17 were from Latinos, for example. Of the 200 teachers hired last year, 20 were Latino, he said.

An Accepted Practice

The shortage of bilingual teachers has prompted district officials to hire some new teachers on the condition that they will learn a second language within three years, said Felice Strauss, president of the Teachers Assn. of Long Beach. The practice is accepted by the state and done in other districts, said Mike Garcia, program administrator for Language Development Services.

But there is little follow-up to ensure that the teachers indeed learn a second language. "Unfortunately," Garcia said, "we don't have the staff to follow on it as much as we would like."

Committee members cited the district's difficulty in recruiting bilingual teachers in urging the school board to make internal changes, such as requiring teachers, administrators and other support staff to learn a second language if at least 30% of the students in their school can't speak English.

If that requirement had been in effect in the last school year, teachers and administrators in 19 schools would have been affected, according to Roberto Uranga, the Hispanic committee's chairman.

Molina-Tobias, who teaches English language development at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, said such a requirement would be "revolutionary, but we have to do something.

"We are professionals. We have to keep up with the times. If that means taking courses in another language, so be it."

Disagreement Expressed

Board member Smith said the mandatory language requirement is "something we should take a look at. It's an interesting idea. . . . The average rational person knows that children have better self-esteem and tend to achieve better when they have role models or people who can speak their own language."

Other board members and school officials disagreed with the proposed language requirement.

Myrna Fujimoto, principal at Thomas Jefferson Junior High and one of the district's first bilingual teachers in the 1970s, said that a second-language requirement would be difficult to enforce. She suggested, instead, that teachers receive special training in how to deal with students who do not speak English properly.

Gadbury, who speaks Spanish and has been screening students for the special education program since September, said she also favors special training.

Board member Jerry Shultz praised the report, but expressed reservations about requiring teachers to learn a second language. He said he favors the concept of a pay differential for bilingual teachers and a program to encourage bilingual aides to become teachers.

Concerns Not Named

School board President Harriet Williams said the board probably would not approve a second-language requirement for at least a few years. Even then, it would probably apply only to new teachers. Supt. Giugni and Strauss, of the teachers' union, said they have some concerns with a language requirement, but they declined to elaborate.

Williams and Strauss also expressed concern about the recommendation to offer differential pay to bilingual staff members.

"Right now, I'm not for it," Williams said. "So many of our teachers give extra." It would be unfair, she said, to pay some more than others. "I get the feeling from staff and teachers that it would be very divisive."

Strauss said that the best solution would be to make teaching a more lucrative profession in general.

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