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Bridging the Language Gap : Students Help Each Other Amid Bilingual Teacher Shortage


LONG BEACH — When teacher Donna Cox had conferences with the parents of her 35 fourth-graders, 29 needed translators--in three languages.

For the Signal Hill Elementary schoolteacher, this summed up the challenge she faces daily in her classroom: How to make herself understood.

Because Cox speaks only English, she must speak slowly, repeat, ask students to translate for other students and rely on an aide who speaks Spanish.

But she considers her job an interesting challenge. "In the end, you're better off for it," she said. "You're richer for learning about other cultures."

Cox is one of many teachers in the Long Beach Unified School District who face the Tower of Babel in the classroom every day. The number of students who speak limited English has doubled since the mid-1980s to 33% of the district.

And finding translators is not easy. The children speak 47 languages. Of the 24,093 children who speak other languages, 15,433 speak Spanish, 5,213 Cambodian, 903 Vietnamese, 797 Tagalog, and 449 Lao.

The district--which has never met state requirements for teaching students with limited English--nearly lost $7 million in state funds for this school year because of the shortage of qualified bilingual teachers and language development specialists.

Of the 3,786 teachers employed by the district, 125 are certificated in bilingual education. This represents a shortage of 300 teachers: 200 certified to teach in Spanish and 100 certified to teach in Cambodian.

Despite the shortage, the district persuaded the State Board of Education that it was making a good-faith effort to comply with state requirements.

"The state saw evidence of our efforts in every area of their review," said Dorothy Harper, a district administrator. "What they're asking for is an ideal situation, which we know we can't accomplish right now, but we're getting there."

In the fall, the district will be reviewed again.

"The district has made some very positive changes in the last three years but still has a long way to go," said Roberto Uranga, chairman of the district's Hispanic Advisory Committee.

Schools "need to teach content areas such as science and social studies in native languages" to prevent students from falling behind, Uranga said.

The school district must also offer bilingual teachers extra pay to compete with Los Angeles Unified and ABC Unified school districts, he said. "If the district does not address this issue, they will never recruit the teachers they need."

The district is recruiting college graduates and teacher aides who have degrees to become certified in bilingual education. This summer, the district plans to start an internship program to train bilingual teachers.

Although they do not have bilingual certificates, about 20% of the district's faculty have received training as language development specialists.

Cox was encouraged to become a language development specialist by taking a 48-hour district course. But she says she has little time to take more courses.

And, she says, she uses a number of techniques for coping with the many languages in her classroom.

When Georgina Camarena arrived in the class from Mexico last fall, Monica Reyes translated for her. The 10-year-old girls sat side by side and spoke quietly in Spanish throughout the lessons. Months later, Georgina understands more English but still needs a peer tutor most of the day.

Cox said simultaneous translation helps students keep up with their classmates.

"Some kids rely on translators too much and act mute, but we don't force them to speak except to say please, thank you, yes or no," she said.

The influx of immigrants to the district may be slowing down, district administrator Martha Estrada said. In the fall, officials expected four classrooms of students who spoke little English, but only 29 enrolled, so the newcomer program at Murray Elementary School was closed.

Estrada said this may show that new immigrants no longer find Long Beach attractive. She said fewer jobs, gang violence and the riots may have discouraged people from moving to the city.

But even students who have been studying English for several years need special assistance.

Denise Anguiano, 10, like many of Cox's students, is nearly fluent in conversational English but has trouble understanding some assignments, especially math word problems.

"I feel scared when I don't understand some words," said Denise, one of the top students in the class. "Then I have to raise my hand and tell Ms. Cox I don't understand."

Her mother, Guadalupe Anguiano, 28, volunteers 12 hours a week at Signal Hill Elementary--eight hours in her daughter's class and four hours in her son's first-grade bilingual class. She reads stories in Spanish or does classroom chores such as making copies. She is also secretary of the Parent-Teacher Assn. and chairwoman of the school's Bilingual Advisory Committee.

A native of Mexico, Anguiano speaks little English but is taking classes at the school.

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