When the School Board changed its bilingual education policy in 1997, it reduced the grace period for bilingual teachers with provisional teaching credentials to get fully certified, cutting it from eight years to five. Last month, schools chief Arne Duncan proposed cutting it again, to three years.

His proposal, which requires state approval, came in the wake of a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that found that thousands of CPS teachers were not fully certified last year.

In bilingual education, full certification requires a standard teaching certificate as well as a bilingual endorsement, which consists of 18 credit hours of coursework in bilingual instruction.

This year, 895 of the district’s 1,523 bilingual teachers are working with provisional certificates, called Type 29s, reports Manuel Medina, who oversees language and cultural education for CPS. However, many of these teachers have standard certificates but lack the bilingual endorsement and, therefore, are considered Type 29s. Medina says only 250 have neither a standard certificate nor the endorsement.

Some bilingual educators welcome tougher requirements. “Teachers from other countries were weak [in English],” says Aida Lozano, the bilingual lead teacher at Saucedo Academy in Pilsen.

The board’s push to transition students out of bilingual classes more quickly—three years is now the standard—has changed what some principals look for when hiring bilingual teachers.

Sylvia Ortiz-Revollo, principal of Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village, says, “With the board’s new rules I can’t afford to hire anyone who isn’t English dominant.”

There are currently 60 bilingual teacher vacancies, according to Manuel Medina.

A longstanding shortage of certified bilingual teachers has eased some as the number of bilingual students has declined in the past four years, Medina says. But the shortage cultivated a sense of complacency among the new hires, many of whom lacked full credentials, he adds.

“Many thought ‘they can’t fire us,'” Medina says.

But the board’s message to uncertified bilingual teachers is simple, Medina adds. First, they should obtain the standard teaching certificate, then work toward the bilingual endorsement.

Bilingual teacher Kim Gibbons took that advice to heart. Gibbons studied Spanish in high school and college, took language classes in Spain and then worked in the business world for eight years before going back to get a master’s degree in education. As a student teacher in a bilingual kindergarten class at Saucedo, she decided to become a bilingual teacher.

Five years later, she’s teaching kindergarten at Saucedo under Type 29 credentials and is one class shy of completing her bilingual endorsement. Gibbons says she is unusual among her Type 29 peers on two counts: one, English is her first language, and two, “I’m already fully certified to be a teacher.”

Perhaps more typical is Nydia Dalmau, a 2nd-grade bilingual teacher at Bateman Elementary in Albany Park. Dalmau came to Chicago 12 years ago from Puerto Rico, where she taught for 20 years.

Though she had prior teaching experience, Dalmau had to sign on initially as a Type 29 bilingual teacher, she needed a standard teaching certificate and a bilingual endorsement. It took her nearly 10 years to get both, she says. (She’s also endorsed as a special education teacher).

At first, it was difficult to find time to take classes and the money to pay for them, and Dalmau waited several years before even starting the certification and endorsement process. Once she started, she had to scramble to fit classes into her teaching schedule. “I took classes at National-Louis University, University of Illinois at Chicago and Northwestern—wherever they were available,” she recalls.

In the past, the district eagerly recruited and hired teachers who were fluent in Spanish and other languages to alleviate the shortage. But often, such hires had little or no English speaking skills. “It’s a disservice to the kids,”says Gibbons.

A bilingual teacher should be able to understand, speak, read and write with proficiency in at least two languages, says Karen Sakash of the University of Illinois at Chicago. A strong college-level background in both languages is a big plus, she says. “If you’ve done all your schooling in one language, [bilingual teaching] is going to be a challenge.”

Sakash leads a certification course for bilingual educators at UIC’s College of Education. Since UIC’s Project 29 program began in 1994, 71 teachers have received education degrees with a bilingual endorsement and are now teaching in a CPS school. Forty-four teachers are currently enrolled in the program, says Sakash. Similar programs have been established at DePaul, Loyola and Dominican universities.

Shifting priorities

As the district shifts its priorities to hiring fully certified bilingual teachers, schools will have to weigh such requirements against their need to fill positions. It’s a difficult balancing act, Sakash says. “I think there is pressure…both at the hiring level and at the district level in terms of policy,” she said.

Principal Ortiz-Revollo doesn’t expect to have a problem. At Cardenas, there are 19 bilingual teachers—more than half of the school’s staff. Only nine are fully-certified; the other 10 are Type 29s.

Several of the uncertified teachers are working on their credentials, but three will not finish before their Type 29 credentials expire in June, says Ortiz-Revollo. Replacing them with fully-certified bilingual teachers will not be difficult, she says. “I get a lot of resumes.”

On the other hand, Hamline Elementary Principal Valerie Brown says she interviewed about 10 candidates to fill two bilingual positions but didn’t hire any of them. Both slots are still open. Most candidates lacked certificates and some didn’t “speak English very well,” she says.

For its part, the board is trying to boost the number of fully certified bilingual teachers by offering funds for tuition reimbursement and basic skills training.

This year, the board has received $175,000 in federal grant money for those initiatives: $100,000 is earmarked for tuition reimbursement (certification classes can cost up to $15,000 over three years); and $75,000 has been set aside for test-prep courses for bilingual teachers who will be taking the state’s Basic Skills Test, a first-step in the standard certification process.

When Nirma Marroquin, a bilingual teacher at Andersen Elementary in Wicker Park, joined CPS as a bilingual teacher nearly a decade ago, there were few resources for teachers with provisional certificates. “We had to find everything ourselves. It wasn’t easy for us.”

New Chicago Teachers Union President Deborah Lynch says if the board is going to restrict the amount of time Type 29 bilingual teachers have to obtain full certification, it should offer more support and training programs. “The board never should’ve hired unqualified teachers in the first place,” says Lynch.

The Board argues its proposal is an effort to remedy the situation. Although CPS offers training classes and reimbursement for certification programs, a harder line is necessary, according to Angela Beneyto-Badillo, who manages compliance for bilingual programs. “Sometimes the Type 29s, they need to be pushed.”

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