Brenda Medina spends most of her time in the classroom translating lessons for her Corpus Christi ISD fourth-graders into English and Spanish because half her 20 students speak English and the other half need extra bilingual support.

A nine-year veteran, Medina is part of an overworked force of bilingual certified educators in the state — as more bilingual students file into Texas public school classrooms.

Kellye Loving, her principal at Oak Park Elementary, has worked hard to recruit teachers qualified to educate about 85 English-language learners at the school, including traveling to the Rio Grande Valley to interview candidates and persuade them to move to the Corpus Christi area. She has seven bilingual certified teachers, one in each grade, but some are stretched thin and have the maximum number of 22 students in one classroom. 

"In the four years I've been here, I have lost three bilingual teachers because of retirement. That whole group of teachers is starting to retire, and there's no one to replace them," Loving said. This means teachers left in the classroom are bearing even more labor, and students are not receiving enough attention to meet their needs.

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That makes its harder to get those English-language learners up to grade level in the same amount of time, Medina said. "The challenge is getting them to where they need to be," she said.

Oak Park Elementary is not alone in its need for more bilingual teachers. Texas schools have added more than 300,000 bilingual students in the past decade and have budgeted for 6,000 fewer full-time employee equivalents certified to teach them, according to the most recent data from the Texas Education Agency captured in The Texas Tribune’s Texas Public Schools Explorer

"Full-time equivalent" or "FTE" measures the equivalent employees working full-time, with two half-time employees counted as one full-time employee.

The fluctuation in the numbers of bilingual FTEs in the past decade does not necessarily mark an exodus of bilingual certified teachers in Texas, according to Lauren Callahan, TEA spokeswoman. Districts self-report the data on how much money they decide to allocate to each specialized program. Between 2005-06 and 2006-07, the count decreased by almost 3,000 — which Callahan said can be attributed mostly to a decrease in the numbers Houston ISD reported between those years.

Houston reported 2,406.4 FTE bilingual teachers in 2005-06, and 203.2 the next academic year. 

Dallas ISD accounted for another dip in the statewide count in the last decade, specifically between 2009-10 and 2010-11. The count for Dallas ISD went from 2,547.4 in 2009-10 to 323 in 2010-11. Representatives from Houston ISD and Dallas ISD did not immediately return requests for comment for this article.

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Callahan stressed that these are not normal drop-offs and that she was not able to explain them. "We don't know why," she said. "I'm not going to know based on that number how many teachers we're talking about."

Since 2011, the number of bilingual FTEs in Texas has been consistently increasing. But bilingual and ESL teachers are still considered a shortage area in the state "because the certification process is so rigorous," Callahan said.

Teacher candidates know they will face tougher and pricier exams, as well as heavier workloads, as bilingual teachers, said Arcelia Hernandez, assistant professor of education at St. Edward's University. Bilingual teachers spend more time on their students than is reflected in their pay, even if they receive a targeted stipend, she said.

"There exists what I call a hidden labor of bilingual education. Even when bilingual teachers receive a stipend, the amount of work that is required from them far exceeds the financial compensation," she said. "They're always translating content, translating exams."

Teacher candidates often just get certified as English-only teachers, even if they take courses in the teacher preparation programs directed toward bilingual learning, Hernandez added. 

Corpus Christi ISD educators said the bilingual certification exam has gotten significantly more difficult in the last several years, decreasing the pool of talent. Christian Gracia Cervantes, a first-grade bilingual teacher at Oak Park, passed the five-hour, computer-administered certification exam last summer. But she knows several people who failed it — often struggling with the listening section, which asks teachers to show an understanding of the language in social and professional contexts.

"There can be a lot of people talking at the same time, and they get nervous," Cervantes said. "They get frustrated while taking the test."

Corpus Christi ISD still needs about 13 bilingual certified teachers in elementary school classrooms to help support English-language learners in general education classrooms, said Yvonne Colmenero, the district's director of special programs.

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Hernandez said she has met candidates who are "incredibly capable in the classroom" but unable to pass the bilingual certification exam, which she said does not take into account the range of linguistic connotations for words in the Spanish language. She suggested the state adopt an alternative method of certifying bilingual teachers, allowing a panel to observe their teaching skills and decide whether they can do the job.

"There's a difference between passing the test and being a good teacher," she said.

Callahan said more than 4,000 educators yearly pass the bilingual or ESL certification exams. The passing rates on the test don't differ much from those on other subject tests, she said. Some teacher candidates come from programs that prepare them to succeed on the test more so than others.

Demographics of teachers, students

The 2015-16 numbers also show that the Texas teaching workforce is mostly white, female and in possession of bachelor's degrees, facts that have held steady over the past decade. The Texas public school student body has seen an increase in Hispanic students and a significant decrease in white students in the same time period. 

While white teachers are more likely to head the classroom in Texas public schools, Hispanic students are more likely to be filling the chairs, according to the TEA data. 

Just over 60 percent of teacher FTEs were white in 2015-16, compared with 69 percent in 2005. Hispanic teacher FTEs made up 26 percent of the teaching force, up from 20 percent a decade ago. Black teacher FTEs made up 10.1 percent, up one percentage point from 2005.

More than half of Texas public school students are Hispanic, and that percentage is increasing. About 46,000 more Hispanic students enrolled in Texas public schools in 2015-16 compared with the previous year, making up 52.2 percent of students in 2015-16. More than 2,000 fewer white students enrolled in Texas public schools in the same period, making up 28.5 percent of the student body in 2015-16. Black students remained at 12.6 percent.

Many Texas public school students are educated in districts where the vast majority of their classmates are of the same race. The data shows that 400 of 1,208 public schools in the state were more than 50 percent Hispanic last school year, 572 were more than 50 percent white, and 40 were more than 50 percent black. Just one, Universal Academy in Dallas County, is more than 50 percent Asian.

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • The makeup of the Texas public school system has become less white and poorer in recent decades, according to the most recent data reflected in The Texas Tribune’s Texas Public Schools Explorer.
  • The public school population in Texas has grown dramatically, and in a way some might find surprising: Most of the growth has come in the numbers of economically disadvantaged students.

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