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Bilingual Teachers Are in Short Supply. How 3 Districts Solved That Problem

As schools work to recruit more teachers, some of the most in-demand job candidates are those who speak more than one language.

These teachers are needed to serve English learners, a majority of whom are Hispanic, and who are now one of the fastest growing student populations in the country, with 42 states and the District of Columbia seeing an increase in enrollment of these students between 2010 and 2019.

Hiring bilingual teachers can be especially challenging for districts in regions of the country where the growth of the English-learner population has been a more recent phenomenon. Financial barriers make it difficult for even interested bilingual candidates—some of whom don’t have bachelor’s degrees—to earn their teaching certification.

However, some districts across the country—including in Alabama, Oklahoma, and Oregon—found creative solutions to build up their bilingual teacher workforce by investing time and resources into a key demographic: their bilingual paraprofessionals.

“We have a need for more multilingual or bilingual teachers,” said Conor Williams, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation think tank who researches multilingual educators and programs. “We have these candidates that have all of these valuable skills working as multilingual paraeducators—the only thing they’re missing is the credentials recognizing these skills.”

Higher education institutions offer work placement programs

In general, programs that help paraprofessionals gain their bachelor’s degrees and/or teacher certification need to address the following issues, Williams said: Teacher candidates need to pay as little out of pocket as possible to participate; class times need to be on a flexible schedule to allow for candidates to keep their paid day jobs; and programs need to value the existing linguistic and teaching skills paraprofessionals develop in their day jobs, especially if the goal is to grow a bilingual teacher pipeline.

Enter Reach University.

Headquartered in California, Reach is an accredited nonprofit university dedicated to advancing job-embedded degrees, or apprenticeship degrees. Since 2020, it has partnered with school districts in Alabama, Arkansas, California, and Louisiana to offer online bachelor’s degree programs to paraprofessionals working by day in classrooms.

“The barriers to grow-your-own efforts and the barriers to achieving representation in schools that more closely matches the students in schools when it comes to the staff are the systemic barriers in the United States to achieving a bachelor’s degree,” said Joe Ross, president of Reach University.

Reach’s undergraduate program costs about $75 a month, or $900 a year, and allows paraprofessionals to gain course credit through their day job at a school by making sure online courses are aligned with what teachers generally cover in K-12 classrooms. Reach faculty are working educators as well, often superintendents, assistant principals, or lead teachers, Ross said.

Heath Grimes, the superintendent of the Russellville city schools district in northern Alabama, has needed to hire bilingual aides within the last few years to help serve English learners who make up about a quarter of the district’s population.

Grimes wanted to grow his bilingual teacher workforce, but paraprofessionals offered a quicker solution.

By coincidence, he had been in contact with Reach about their undergraduate program. Grimes liked the idea of being able to offer the program as a work incentive to the newly hired bilingual aides that could lead to a longer-term investment in new bilingual teachers down the road.

Elizabeth Alonzo, one of the aides hired in 2021, completed her bachelor’s degree through Reach and is now pursuing a master’s at a local in-state university to later work within the Russellville district as a teacher.

“I don’t know what I would be doing now if I had not been given that opportunity,” Alonzo said.

Alonzo can also see the gains for students made possible by programs such as Reach.

“I know at the beginning of this school year, they were excited to see that I was going to be in their classroom, the Hispanic students, because they have somebody that looks like them that they can feel more comfortable with,” she said.

Grimes, set to leave the Russellville district this year, said that when he pitched the Reach program to other superintendents in Alabama who are also in of need bilingual educators, they claimed it was too good to be true.

“It’s not too good to be true. It’s actually true,” he said.

Though Reach takes a heavy logistical load off districts’ backs, other districts have found their partnerships outside of academia that have also led to promising results.

Philanthropic partnerships can open more pathways

In Oklahoma City’s public school system, nearly 60 percent of students are Hispanic, and 38 percent primarily speak Spanish at home.

“It’s important that when our kids look to the front of the class, they see somebody that looks like them, that understands their culture, speaks their language,” Superintendent Sean McDaniel said.

Yet recruiting these educators is tough: “When you look across our district, you see classroom after classroom after classroom of 80 percent, 90 percent, 95 percent Hispanic students who do not have a Hispanic teacher,” he said. “We feel like we’re selling them short a little bit—that we’re not giving them everything that they need to be as successful as they can be.”

Bilingual educators were already in the district, working as paraprofessionals. But when district officials approached them about becoming teachers, the overwhelming response was: We’d love to earn our teaching license, but we can’t afford it.

In 2016, the district partnered with the Oklahoma City Public Schools Foundation, a local nonprofit, to launch the Bilingual Teacher Pipeline Program. Through the program, the foundation pledges to cover 100 percent of the tuition, books, and associated fees for bilingual paraprofessionals to earn their college degrees from the University of Central Oklahoma. (Some of the paraprofessionals start at a local community college.)

The paraprofessionals can continue working in the district to maintain their salaries and benefits. In exchange, the program graduates must commit to teaching in the district for at least three years.

In 2019, the program expanded to paraprofessionals of color, and more recently, to all paraprofessionals in the district. Currently, 71 paraprofessionals are going through the program, 47 of whom are bilingual. So far, 20 paraprofessionals—18 of whom are bilingual—have graduated with their teaching license, and five more—including four who are bilingual—will graduate this summer.

“It’s a long-term approach, but what we’re getting is a really loyal group of individuals who want to teach, and they want to teach in our school district,” said Mary Mélon-Tully, the president and CEO of the OKPS Foundation. “When you talk to them, they know the responsibility that they have. So many of them were the same kids that our kids are—they came in [to school] not speaking English; … they didn’t have a teacher that could speak their language. They know [students’] struggle. That’s a lot of what drives them.”

Some of the paraprofessionals already have their associate degrees, so it doesn’t take them long to earn their bachelor’s degree and teaching license. But others are starting from scratch, and it might take them up to six years to graduate, Mélon-Tully said. After all, it’s difficult for paraprofessionals to balance school and full-time work, along with other family responsibilities.

“It’s a tough grind,” McDaniel said. “But man, it’s life-changing for the teachers as well. They go from … not making very much money to tripling [or] quadrupling their income as they get to the other side of this.”

It’s a game-changer for students and their families, too, he said.

“When you see a teacher speaking to a mother or a grandmother or another caregiver in their native language, and they smile, their eyes light up—it’s a totally different conversation than to have one of our employees who happens to be an interpreter or translator get in between the teacher and the parent,” McDaniel said.

The OKPS Foundation and the school district have also worked together to launch a similar program for bilingual teachers and teachers of color who want to become administrators, and for any eligible high school students who want to be teachers. (The high schoolers work in the district as paraprofessionals while they’re attending college, tuition free.)

Even scaled-down local programs can help

Such pipeline programs are, of course, expensive. The Oklahoma City model is funded by philanthropy. Other states and districts might have similar apprenticeship programs that are registered with the U.S. Department of Labor, which opens up another stream of funding.

Still other districts—including the Portland, Ore., school district—offer scaled-down programs to make it easier for bilingual paraprofessionals to become teachers. In the 2015-16 school year, the Portland district was missing 14 bilingual teachers for its dual language immersion and world language programs, which are offered in Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Russian.

“There’s so much competition” among school districts and other industries for bilingual individuals, said Lihong Dai, the business operations analyst for the district’s multilingual learner department. “We constantly need more bilingual teachers.”

The district launched its Dual Language Teacher Residency Program in the summer of 2016 to guide prospective bilingual teachers through the process of earning their master’s degrees in education and teaching licenses. The program is open to qualified bilingual candidates—including educational assistants already working in the district, as well as community members, such as parents—who already have a bachelor’s degree. (Many candidates had been teachers in their home countries, said Dai, who taught for 20 years in China before coming to the United States.)

The district doesn’t have the financial resources to provide tuition assistance, said Dana Nerenberg, the senior director of academic programs. However, the program participants are hired as teachers or substitute teachers so they are receiving a steady paycheck as they work toward their master’s degrees.

And they receive support as they learn the ropes of being a teacher. Participants attend a three-week summer academy led by educators in the district and then are assigned a mentor teacher, in addition to a university supervisor. They also go through the program in a cohort, which varies in size from year to year but is usually around 10 people. “Each step of the way, you’ll have other people who are experiencing the same,” Dai said.

However, student enrollment declines have led to budget cuts, which have made it more challenging for the district to provide as robust support as it initially did, Dai said. In the first few years of the program, curriculum specialists in the district would co-teach with the program participants and offer lesson-planning support, she said, but that’s no longer happening.

Even so, the program has provided a steady pipeline of bilingual teachers for the district.

“It’s really important for our students to see educators who look like them who share a common language, common culture,” Nerenberg said. “I think that’s really empowering for our students and for our families. It also goes a long way to making our schools feel more welcoming.”

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