Juan Carlos Garcia recognized the challenge he faced as a teacher in the United States the minute he introduced himself to his class at Fern Elementary School.
"I am from another country. That country is Spain," he recalled telling the 30 fifth-graders on the first day of school last September. "Who knows where Spain is?"
The silence and blank stares with which he was answered told the novice teacher that a geography lesson was probably in order. But more important, Garcia said, it exemplified the cultural differences that teacher and students would have to overcome during the year.
Garcia, 27, is one of six beginning teachers recruited by the Garvey School District to fill an urgent need for bilingual teachers. The 1986-87 school year, the first in a statewide pilot program intended to match up California's need for Spanish-speaking teachers with Spain's current surplus of educators, turned out to be a good one for both the teachers and the students.
Garvey Supt. Andrew J. Viscovich said, "This year was a shakedown cruise" for the program, which was coordinated by the California Department of Education and the Spanish Ministry of Education and Science.
He cited problems with some of the 68 teachers who participated in the program statewide, but said the Garvey district plans to continue recruiting teachers from Spain.
"We found some things that needed to be tightened up, and I believe we've done that," he said.
The biggest problems came as a result of having to hire the teachers sight unseen. As in other districts, administrators at Garvey had only audiotapes with which to gauge the candidates' proficiency in English and in teaching.
Most of the Garvey teachers did well, Viscovich said, but two had problems with the language or in adapting to the American educational system. He said he probably would not have hired them if he had interviewed them in person.
Viscovich said the Spanish education ministry helped solve that problem by sponsoring a recruiting trip that ended last week. He and nine other California educators went to Spain and selected 50 possible teachers for next year.
If Garvey's budget allows, Viscovich said, the district would like to hire six teachers for the next school year to replace the previous six, whose visas will expire soon.
Other districts that took part in the program did not fare as well.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, which hired eight teachers, does not plan to participate in the program again.
"We just believe that the teachers are not really qualified," said Bill Rivera, a spokesman for the district. "They're so limited in English proficiency that it hampers their performance."
But the Garvey classrooms in which the Spaniards taught became unique learning environments for both the children and the teachers.
More than 1,600 of the 7,400 students in the district, which serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students from San Gabriel, South San Gabriel and parts of Rosemead and Monterey Park, speak limited or no English and require instruction in Spanish, Viscovich said.
State law requires that bilingual instruction be provided for each class that has more than 10 students who speak only a little English. Garvey, which has high Latino and Asian enrollments, also offers bilingual classes in Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
The Spanish teachers helped students whose native language is Spanish understand difficult concepts by translating the ideas and explaining them in Spanish.
And the students helped the teachers learn English and adapt to American life.
"It gives them a feeling of self-worth to be able to inform the teacher about English words, slang or culture," said Joyce Metevia, principal at Fern Elementary School, where two of the teachers were assigned.
Metevia said she frequently sat in on Garcia's classes, where it was evident "the children love him."
"It's really a joy to be in his class and watch the interaction between him and his students," she said. "They're both learning."
Mary Binch, principal at Dan T. Williams Elementary School, was equally pleased with the work of Mercedes Gonzalez, the teacher assigned to one of her school's fifth-grade classes.
"She gave them an entirely different perspective, a different viewpoint," Binch said. "She was able to tell them about certain countries firsthand because she had been there."
It even worked to the class' benefit when Gonzalez mispronounced or misspelled words, Binch said.
"It helped the kids. They could not sit back and relax," she said. "It kept them on their toes, and it kept her on her toes."
The teachers had never met before they boarded a plane in Madrid for the flight to Los Angeles. But they have forged a bond that comes from trying to get along in a strange country.
"We had the same problems," Garcia said. "When you share the same problems, you become close."