By Marco Poggio
SAN ANTONIO, TX - She came to San Antonio from Puerto Rico with her husband and two children a little over a year ago knowing very little English. At a job fair, she met a recruiter interested in her credentials and her proficiency in Spanish.
In a matter of weeks, Seyri Caban, 42, was hired to teach Spanish language and literature at Stevens High School in the Northside Independent School District.
“They gave me the opportunity — really, I don’t know why. I’m very grateful for that,” she said.
Her tenacity and skills took her far, but something else helped Caban get the job: a lack of certified bilingual teachers in Texas, even in bilingual cities like San Antonio.
Since at least 1990, when the U.S. Department of Education began keeping track of teacher shortages, school districts in the state have periodically struggled to attract job applicants in several subjects, including mathematics, science, special education and technology.
But for teachers of bilingual education and English as a second language, the scarcity has continued for 25 straight years and is far from being solved, experts say. To cope with it, school officials have expanded their recruitment pool by going far outside their districts — sometimes to other states or even abroad.
“We have brought teachers from Spain to teach in our district. We don’t have the people in San Antonio that are fluent academically to teach the content areas in Spanish,” said Claudia Garcia, bilingual and English as second language coordinator at East Central Independent School District.
One of them, Ana Hoches Moreno, came from Barcelona, Spain, as part of an international visiting teacher program sponsored by the Spanish government.
“I try to show the kids the real Spanish that I know,” said Moreno, 42, who teaches Spanish reading and writing at Oak Crest Intermediate School in East Central.
Nearly 42 percent of people in San Antonio speak Spanish, and about 70 percent of them are also proficient in English, according to U.S. census data. But speaking Spanish at home doesn’t make someone proficient enough to be able to teach in that language, Garcia said.
“You need teachers who are very fluent, who don’t mix languages. It’s frustrating when you don’t have the qualified teachers that you need,” Garcia said.
A low level of local college attainment is one of several factors limiting the numbers of bilingual education teachers, said Belinda Flores, a University of Texas at San Antonio professor who chairs its Department of Bicultural-Bilingual Studies.
Many bilingual students who are the first in their families to attend college stop with an associate’s degree and don’t go on to universities, where they could get teacher certification, she said.
“It’s a challenge to go to school full time and not having any other source of income other than financial aid or scholarships,” Flores said.
Students who make it to four-year universities are attracted to the salary expectations of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields more than teaching, which is widely perceived to be a low-paying job, Flores said.
First- or second-generation college students, in particular, tend to avoid teaching as a career path, experts say.
“There’s plenty of people who speak Spanish and English to a high degree who could be bilingual teachers,” said Jim Van Overschelde, assistant professor and director of the Office of Educator Preparation at Texas State University. “We have a rich resource within this country that is not going into teaching.”
A negative perception of teaching in the Latino community might be one reason for it, he said, adding, “Hispanic students have more social pressure from their parents and friends not to become teachers.”
The qualifications and testing required for bilingual educators is another hurdle — “It’s not just about finding Spanish speakers fluent enough to teach in Spanish,” said Travis McKelvain, director of recruitment and retention at San Antonio Independent School District.
In addition to standard teacher certification exams, bilingual teachers must pass the Bilingual Education Supplemental Test and the Bilingual Target Language Proficiency Test — the latter, educators say, has a passing rate of just 30 percent.
“Even individuals that are native Spanish speakers can have a difficult time passing that exam,” said Michael Vrzalik, educational specialist at Texas Education Service Center Region 20, which includes Bexar County.
Bilingual education is not the only subject for which teachers are in demand, and school districts in San Antonio try to retain them with pay raises and bonuses, officials said.
The Harlandale, Northside, Southside, Southwest and South San Antonio independent school districts need math and science teachers. East Central, Harlandale, Northside, San Antonio, Southwest and Southside ISDs are looking for applicants in special education, another shortage area.
Human resources directors in area school districts are used to it. At the end of each school year, when teachers resign or retire, it is often hard to find applicants to replace them, officials said. With five weeks to go before classes start again, districts now are scrambling to fill vacancies.
“We’re about a month ahead of where we were this time last year,” said Patty Dehman Hill, assistant superintendent for human resources at Northside, the largest school district in the city and one of the fastest growing ones in the state.
Last week, Northside was still looking to hire about 60 more elementary teachers and about 70 secondary teachers. Besides Spanish bilingual teachers, vacancies include math, science, and special education.
When teachers can’t be found to fill a position, technology can help: video-conference and virtual classrooms allow students to attend lectures by teachers located in another campus, Hill said. Language courses that are lower in demand, such as German or French, are sometimes dropped, she said.
Acknowledging the challenge, Northside spokesman Pascual Gonzalez and North East spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said they aren’t calling it a shortage at this point.
“Some positions are traditionally hard to fill, but we’re confident that we’re going to have all positions filled by the end of the month,” Gonzalez said.