South Florida Schools Struggle To Find Enough Bilingual Teachers

Oct 25, 2015

Most of the students at Royal Palm Elementary in Miami have Spanish-speaking families.

But those families also want their kids to speak – and read and write – more Spanish in school.

So teacher Alexandra Martin is leading her first grade class through “Vamos Papa,” with each child reading a passage from the Spanish language story. Martin helps students through proper pronunciation and words they stumble on.

This is the Miami-Dade public schools’ extended foreign language program, or EFL

Students have five hours a week of classes taught in Spanish with additional lessons in English. It’s not just reading and writing, but also math and science.

Spanish is part of everyday life in Miami, something  that’s different from most of the rest of the country. But Miami-Dade is struggling to find enough teachers qualified in both English and Spanish.

“We had more [student} applicants than we could service,  so we had to hold a raffle,” said Marta Garcia, principal of Royal Palm Elementary School, near Florida International University. Three students applied for each slot in Royal Palm’s EFL program.

“Parents have realized that it really makes a difference in their child’s education,” Garcia said. “To truly be biliterate and bilingual, it is a big advantage.”

Students who miss out on the EFL program get regular Spanish class – 2.5 hours a week.

Garcia said the parents of nearly all her students speak Spanish. But not all those kids are fluent in both languages.

She has the same concern when hiring teachers for the bilingual program.

“They might be able to speak the language,” Garcia said, “but when it comes to writing and reading it they might have a little more difficulty.”

School districts around the country are having the same problem.

There are more than 10 times as many dual language programs in U.S. schools as there were 15 years ago.

There's two reasons for the rising demand. More students are immigrants and must be taught English as a second language. And the ability to speak, read and write two languages is a valuable skill.

But research also shows students learn more in bilingual programs.

North Carolina schools found that students in bilingual programs outperformed peers in single-language programs. And that was true no matter the demographic subgroup. The state is now looking to expand bilingual programs.

Thirty-two states say they can’t find enough bilingual teachers.

One reason for that is that people who can speak, read and write in two languages can earn more than teachers make.

Royal Palm first grade teacher Alexandra Martin is certified in elementary education and Spanish education. She said bilingual teaching is also a lot more work.

“Everything is double,” she said.

Actually, more than double.

First, teachers have to plan the lesson – in English and Spanish.

Then they have to adjust lessons for each student based on how well they read and write.

Then teachers have to adjust the lessons again based on each student’s reading and writing skills in the other language too.

At Lorah Park Elementary School, all students are taught reading, writing, math and science in English and Spanish.
Credit John O'Connor / StateImpact Florida

Rosa Castro Feinberg is a retired bilingual teacher and former Miami-Dade County school board member. She -- and the League of United Latin American Citizens advocacy group she is a member of -- have pushed the school district to keep expanding foreign language programs.

“We have held a leadership position nationally...since the 60s,” she said.

But she said extended foreign language programs aren’t ambitious enough.

“Not all elementary students will have access to opportunities to learn other languages,” Castro Feinberg said.

The EFL program is hard and not every student can handle the difficult curriculum. And students often can’t join the program in third or  fourth  grade if they didn’t start in kindergarten.

Castro Feinberg prefers the county’s original bilingual model.

Johanna Bautista leads her thirrd graders through a call and response lesson.

“Primero, las ninas,” Buatista said, prompting the girls to go first.

“Soy muy famosa!” the girls shout with sass – “I am very famous.”

The boys respond: “Soy muy famoso!”

In a science classroom, students learn about the scientific method in Spanish. The day before, they learned the same concepts in English.

This is Lorah Park Elementary School in the Brownsville neighborhood. There is no lottery to get into the bilingual program. Every student is taught reading, writing, math and science in English and Spanish.

Lorah Park uses another bilingual model developed in the 1960s known as BISO – bilingual school organization.

The majority of students are black, and almost none speak Spanish at home.

Lorah Park’s bilingual teachers have Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican roots.  But not every school is so lucky.  Just a handful of Miami-Dade schools have BISO programs. Expanding them would require the district to hire lots of new bilingual teachers.

It’s easier to add extended foreign language, where more than 60 schools have programs.

But Lorah Park Elementary School Principal Maria LaCavalla said the demand is there. About 15 percent of Lorah Park students live outside the school’s attendance zone and choose to enroll in the school.

Miami-Dade is working with Florida International University to train more bilingual teachers. And Florida is making it easier for people switching careers to become teachers.