PRINEVILLE — Hannah Keen has a plan: English in the morning, Spanish in the afternoon. But just a few weeks into the school year, sometimes she has to deviate.
On a recent Monday morning, her kindergarten class was practicing “S” words — sock, sun, spoon, straw.
“Si, pero en ingles,” she told a boy. To another squirming boy she said, in Spanish, to pay attention. On the board the date was written in English and Spanish; on the walls were posters with colors and shapes identified in both languages.
Keen teaches in the dual language program at Barnes Butte Elementary School, where students learn in English and Spanish. She estimates of her 28 students, about a dozen are native English speakers, a dozen are native Spanish speakers and the rest are bilingual.
“Yes, there are going to be times when my English speakers are in the Spanish time and they’re not going to understand it so well,” she said. Then she would use hand motions, visuals and repeat key vocabulary until it sinks in. “Even though I’m speaking Spanish, they definitely catch on.”
Research shows these programs can close the achievement gap between native and non-native English speakers. Last year there were more than 80 dual language programs in Oregon. But as more districts add them, the state is facing a shortage of bilingual teachers.
“Staffing is a challenge,” said Jim Bates, principal at Barnes Butte. “The goal is to have a rock-solid Spanish-skilled instructor in front of the kids.”
His district lost three bilingual teachers over the summer and has had to cut back how much Spanish instruction older elementary students receive. In kindergarten through third grade, bilingual teachers teach half in Spanish, half in English, but older students get only about 45 minutes a day in Spanish.
Dual language is an umbrella term for many different models that use two languages in one classroom. Some are strictly for non-native English speakers and wean them off of instruction in their native language over time. Dual immersion programs, however, expose students to two languages at once with the goal of developing proficiency in both.
Most programs in Oregon are English/Spanish, though some teach Japanese, Mandarin, Russian and Vietnamese.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Oregon has had a shortages of bilingual teachers and those who can teach English language learners for nearly a decade. The state is certainly aware of the problem. Its plan to help English language learners includes the goal of hiring more bilingual teachers, as does its plan for improving teacher diversity.
“If we don’t have the teachers to staff these (programs), we’re shooting ourselves in the foot,” said Martha Martinez from the Oregon Department of Education’s equity team. The shortage has led to districts poaching bilingual teachers from each other. “The districts that can afford to pay more are doing that.”
In an ODE survey in December, 25 of 37 districts that responded indicated they had bilingual teacher openings for the 2014-15 school year, and 22 reported difficulty filling those vacancies. Together, they had 172 openings, mostly at the elementary level.
Among respondents with dual language programs, more than 80 percent indicated they had difficulty hiring bilingual teachers. They reported many candidates were either not proficient enough in the desired second language or accepted a teaching position in another state. Many reported the state’s testing requirements for teacher licensure were particularly challenging for candidates whose primary language is not English.
Closing the gap
There are academic and social benefits to dual immersion programs for both native and non-native English speakers. In one study, researchers followed students in dual language programs in 23 districts across the country for nearly two decades. They found English learners in immersion programs with native English speakers typically met grade-level standards in English by fifth or sixth grade, faster than those learning just English or those in immersion programs without native English speakers. What’s more, they determined, dual immersion programs are the only way to fully close the achievement gap between native and non-native English speakers.
But implementation is key. The study noted English learners were more successful when they learned alongside native English speakers, learning the two languages separately with no translation or repeated lessons. The non-English language must be taught at least 50 percent of the instructional time and as much as 90 percent in early grades, with a minimum of six years of bilingual instruction.
Native English speakers benefit by learning a second language at a young age, which may improve critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“Really it is a 21st century skill that the rest of the world takes for granted and we are starting to capitalize on,” said Kinsey Martin, the dual immersion program coordinator at Bear Creek Elementary School in Bend.
That program started in 2010, adding a grade each year. It reached fifth grade this year and will add sixth grade at High Desert Middle School next year. For kindergarten and first grade, 80 percent of instruction is in Spanish; that goes down to 70 percent in second grade, 60 percent in third grade and 50 percent in fourth and fifth grade.
The program has about 300 students, or about half of Bear Creek students overall. Enrollment is split evenly between English speakers and Spanish speakers (though most of those enter with some English skills, Martin said). Preference goes to students living in the boundaries of Bear Creek, Juniper and Silver Rail elementary schools and there is a lengthy waiting list.
“People get really disappointed when they end up on the waitlist. People are really passionate about bilingual education and really want their kids to be bilingual,” Martin said. “The reason you really want to maintain that (ratio) is for the interactions, to have a model and be a model. Sometimes you’re the expert, sometimes I’m the expert.”
For those who do get in, Martin sees benefits apart from language skills. Students develop an appreciation for different cultures by being in class with students of different backgrounds. And Spanish speakers see their native language valued at school, letting parents who may not be proficient in English communicate with teachers and be involved in their students’ education.
For these programs to work, however, teachers in these programs need more than conversational Spanish. Martin said she looks for teachers who have a more complex, academic understanding of both languages, with strong writing and translating skills. Of her teachers, about half are native Spanish speakers from Spain, Central and South America.
“If (students) only hear native English speakers who learned (Spanish) in school and are teaching it, they aren’t able to get the same accent or same culture piece,” she said. “We want to be able to prepare our kids to be competent in communicating with any Spanish speaker, not just if they travel to Mexico.”
No silver bullet
ODE wants to see more of these dual immersion programs. In 2013 it awarded grants to seven districts — including $120,000 to Bend-La Pine Schools — to help launch or scale up programs. It will award a second round next month to established programs; some of that money could go toward helping bilingual teacher candidates move through the certification process, according to Martinez.
For now, the state is taking a piecemeal approach to the teacher shortage. ODE is working with the state’s teacher licensing agency to reduce barriers for non-native English speakers to earn teaching credentials. Earlier this year the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which directs funding for Oregon’s public universities, approved a new funding model based on degree completion rather than enrollment that would give more money for programs in high-demand fields, including bilingual education.
The state has also helped districts hire foreign language and bilingual teachers from overseas, including 13 teachers from Spain and 11 from Mexico this year.
And just last week, the state launched a new website for prospective teachers it hopes will appeal to bilingual candidates.
“The solution here is not a silver bullet. It has to be a handful of strategies working in tandem,” said Kristin Gimbel, spokeswoman for the state’s Chief Education Office.
Redmond School District plans to start a dual immersion program next year with two kindergarten classes taught in Spanish and English. It would then add a grade each year, with first grade in 2017-18, second grade in 2018-19 and so on, up to fifth grade and maybe beyond.
It has yet to choose which elementary school will host the program.
Martha Hinman, the district’s executive director of student services, said when the district was hiring for the current school year it looked for bilingual teachers and support staff that could help start the program. It got one, maybe two.
“We didn’t have an expectation that it’d be higher. We were happy to see a few,” Hinman said. “It is a big challenge, and we know that.”
With so few candidates, some districts are recruiting would-be teachers before they graduate. The Redmond district is looking at its high school students interested in teaching that it could steer toward bilingual education, something ODE encourages districts to do.
As for hiring next year, Hinman is prepared for a challenge.
“Our priority is to get the right candidate, not just a candidate to fill a position,” she said. “If we don’t find the right candidate, we may not start next year.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7837,