PARAMOUNT — Even though she had five years of high school English and a couple of years of teaching experience when she arrived in the United States from her native Buenos Aires in 1976, Silvina Rubinstein still struggled.
"It was a year before I could hold a telephone conversation in English," said Rubinstein, a bilingual-education specialist in the Paramount Unified School District.
In her work with the Paramount and Chino school districts, Rubinstein has seen a number of struggling students from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries.
'Things Have Improved'
"Things have improved some today, but in 1976 students were failing academically because they were not fluent in English and did not understand the culture," Rubinstein said.
"The Hispanic students were even failing physical education because they wouldn't take showers. They did not take group showers in their culture," Rubinstein said. "They were having problems understanding how to open school lockers. Many were very poor but could not get financial aid or free lunches due them because the parents who spoke only Spanish were unable to fill out applications."
Now, she has started an innovative project in the Paramount school district in an effort to increase the number of bilingual teachers.
Rubinstein has persuaded 25 district teachers to volunteer to serve as mentors for 25 instructional aides who are working toward credentials as bilingual teachers.
The mentors, among other things, will tutor and counsel the aides, and help them apply for college scholarships and grants.
Mentors to Give Moral Support
"The teachers will provide more than just academic help. They will provide moral support to the instructional aide, who is usually a parent trying to work while taking care of their own kids and going to school," said Rubinstein, 36.
She launched the program in early December during a dinner at which many of the mentors were introduced to the instructional aides they will help.
One of the mentors, Margarita Romo, said: "This is an ideal program. It's a crutch. I wish I had had something like this to lean on when I was struggling through college."
Romo, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at Mark Keppel Elementary School, was matched with Martha Vega, an instructional aide at Gaines Elementary School. Vega, a single mother with an 18-month-old daughter, is preparing to enroll for the spring semester at Cerritos College, where she has completed 22 units, or about two semesters.
"This program will really be helpful to me," said Vega, 22. "I have really had a difficult time. I've taken some wrong classes. But now I have someone to go to for advice." In addition to helping Vega choose correct classes, Romo will help her locate possible grant and scholarship aid. "I have even offered to baby-sit while Martha studies," said Romo, 40.
The majority of the instructional aides are attending community colleges, although a few are going to four-year colleges and universities.
The aides are hired to help the district's teachers with classroom instruction and other duties. Paramount has 293 instructional aides, 137 of whom are in training to become bilingual teachers. "I've had so many aides ask for individual help and advice in becoming teachers . . . ," Rubinstein said.
Enrollment of students who speak limited English has climbed each year in the Paramount district, she said, but the number of bilingual teachers has remained about the same. About 80% of the district's 12,000 students are Latino, and about 31% are enrolled in a bilingual program, she said. The district has 39 certified bilingual elementary school teachers and 7 certified high school teachers among its 500 teachers.