One in five kids struggles with English in the state’s public schools, and they don’t have nearly enough teachers to help them all.
So the University of North Texas at Dallas is investing millions to build a bilingual teacher “superhighway” to train more of these badly needed educators through its Emerging Teachers Institute.
The institute is recruiting aggressively through grass-roots campaigns and now offers an accelerated pathway to a degree for some students.
That’s gotten the attention of Luis Borja, a Sunset High School freshman who already knows he wants to be a bilingual teacher. At just 15 years old, Luis recently attended a symposium organized by UNT-Dallas where he learned about a young Oak Cliff community activist who taught third grade at his old elementary school.
Luis can see himself doing the same. Growing up, he was frustrated for classmates who struggled to learn because there weren’t enough teachers who could speak to them in their native Spanish.
“Someone has to be the leader to help them get on their feet,” he said. “In elementary, I saw how some couldn’t communicate and had trouble speaking. I felt bad for them. How come there was no one to help them? How come no one could step up and be a leader for them?”
Luis is now on what educators hope will be a fast track for him to be that leader. Sunset’s new collegiate academy includes a focus on bilingual education that allows students to earn an associate’s degree from Mountain View College by the time they graduate high school. They can then seamlessly transfer to UNT-Dallas to earn a teaching certification.
Texas has 1 million students who struggle with English. Even as the number of kids needing assistance has grown, the pool of qualified bilingual teachers has been shrinking sharply.
In 2009, Texas had 24,500 bilingual or English as a second language teachers. That’s one for every 30 kids who needed them.
But last school year, the state had 21,144 such educators, or one for every 48 students who struggle with English.
The biggest challenge in finding bilingual teachers often isn’t pay, but getting would-be teachers interested in the profession. That’s where UNT-Dallas wants to start.
John Gasko, dean of UNT-Dallas’ Emerging Teacher Institute, said the goal is to get local students hooked on teaching early and keep them engaged.
“Bilingual education is an art form that requires a lot of skills,” he said. “It’s not just about language but about being relatable and understanding what your students are going through. Today’s middle school and high school kids here know what that means.”
The university’s innovative marketing includes developing an anime-style comic about a heroine who’s a teacher by day and superhero by night. The series — by popular local artist Hector Rodriguez, who is also a bilingual education teacher — aims to show how teachers help solve social issues affecting neighborhoods.
The aggressive recruiting campaign relies on nonprofits, church groups and volunteers to talk to families and teens about opportunities in bilingual education.
Florencia Velasco Fortner, president and CEO of The Concilio, said her nonprofit works with Spanish-speaking families dealing with health and education issues and sees first-hand their struggles to communicate in schools.
Members of the community group have visited shops along Jefferson Boulevard to talk to owners and patrons about encouraging kids to seek teaching as a career and return to their neighborhoods to work one day.
Competition for qualified bilingual teachers is so fierce that many are poached by recruiters from across the country who swoop into Texas to tap the state’s talent pool.
That means some school districts turn to Spain or other countries for bilingual teachers. But they may not be sensitive to the immigration or cultural challenges that the Latinos who grew up in Texas face. Those students who need bilingual education primarily come from families of Mexican or Central American descent.
“When you come up through the system here, you’re not leaving it up to chance that they will understand,” she said. “They’ve seen it or experienced it first hand.”
So far, UNT-Dallas has raised more about $2 million to build up the bilingual education program and make it as affordable as possible. H-E-B grocery store magnate Charles Butt made a donation that will allow some aspiring teachers to get full scholarships when transferring from community colleges.
UNT-Dallas’ efforts are part of amped-up efforts across the area to train more bilingual teachers.
Grand Prairie ISD has partnered with the University of Texas at Arlington to offer high school juniors and seniors dual-credit opportunities that also put them on an accelerated path toward becoming bilingual teachers.
And just this month, Dallas County Community College District officials approved an agreement that will let students take teaching courses from Texas A&M University-Commerce at the El Centro College campus in downtown Dallas. The plan is to eventually offer bilingual education and Spanish education certifications.
The amped-up efforts are essential to Texas, said UNT-Dallas’ Gasko. Many of the state’s largest school districts need about 300 new bilingual teachers each year, he said.
And since bilingual teachers tend to have their pick of job opportunities — with many districts offering up to $10,000 in stipends or signing bonuses to recruit them — getting them to teach in their neighborhood schools is a challenge.
That’s why helping students such as Luis get on the path toward certification more quickly — by repeatedly offering training and residencies at their local campuses — is key to keeping them engaged.
“We’re doubling down on these kids by honoring not only their language culture but investing in them so that they’ll be the ones leading their community,” Gasko said.