Mexican Teachers May Help Fill a Local Need

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Mexico may begin sending bilingual teachers to Ventura County as early as next year under an exchange program, a breakthrough that could help ease the county's worsening shortage of Spanish-speaking teachers, officials said Tuesday.

The statewide Binational Program is coordinated out of the Ventura County superintendent of schools office, giving local schools an edge in what is very likely to be keen competition for a valuable resource.

Eleven teachers from the Mexican state of Michoacan arrived earlier this month for a pilot program at Lynwood Unified School District in Los Angeles County. State education officials favored that district as a test because of its especially high concentration of Spanish-speaking students.

Gil Villasenor, who runs the Binational Program out of the Ventura County superintendent's office, said he is looking to strike similar agreements with other California school districts, including those in Ventura County.

The collaborative effort is working so well that Michoacan officials said they may have up to 100 more teachers ready to travel north by January, Villasenor said.

"My intent now is to do recruitment [of schools] within our own county so we can get those teachers here," he said.

The Mexican teachers would obtain temporary teaching credentials and work in county schools for up to two years, Villasenor said. They could remain longer with work visas, but would have to give up their teaching positions with the Mexican government, he said.

Although it is not expected to fill the overwhelming demand for bilingual teachers here and around the state, Ventura County educators said Tuesday they are thrilled to learn about the program.

The Fillmore Unified School District has already expressed interest, Villasenor said. And other districts in Oxnard, Santa Paula and Ventura may also want to participate to help teach their burgeoning enrollments of students who speak little English.

"We don't have enough bilingual teachers right now," said Cliff Rodrigues, director of the county's bilingual education program. "So any effort to help alleviate that situation would be great."

About 19% of the county's 120,733 students have limited English skills, state officials said in a recent report. That ranks Ventura County 11th in the state for enrollment of English-deficient children.

Ventura County would need to hire at least 300 bilingual teachers to meet current demand. An estimated 30,000 bilingual teachers are needed statewide, officials said.

Spanish-speaking teachers are so prized that many Ventura County districts offer contract bonuses of $1,000 or more to lure them and make trips to colleges and universities to recruit them.

The Binational Program's teacher exchange offers a promising alternative to that system, Rodrigues said. And the fact that the teachers are Mexican nationals is an added plus, he said.

"The majority of our kids are Mexican," Rodrigues said. "So culturally, these teachers are ready to relate to them."

Villasenor said he has been working with an official at Michoacan's Ministry of Education for more than a year to bring the exchange to fruition. That colleague, Hugo Guerrero, recruited 55 teachers in April. In July, Villasenor flew to Mexico and selected 25 candidates based on their level of teaching experience and English proficiency.

Then he asked the California Department of Education for help in finding a district to set up the pilot program. Althea Jenkins, assistant superintendent of personnel for the Lynwood school district, said she jumped at the chance.

"I'm just grateful," Jenkins said. "I hope we are representing our country and our school district well so they will come again."

Mexican teachers are attracted to the United States because of the opportunity to make far larger salaries than they can at home, Villasenor said. A starting elementary school teacher in Mexico earns between $5,000 and $10,000 a year; in California, the beginning salary is about $30,000.

Mexican teachers also see California as a place to complete master's degrees and bone up on their English. Then they can return to Mexico and teach at a university, Villasenor said.

Already, educators from neighboring states in Mexico have begun inquiring about similar exchanges, Villasenor said. And school officials from California, Oregon and Washington have been asking questions about the program too, he said.

"There are benefits for both sides," he said. "This program has great potential."

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