Friday, November 27 , 2015, 3:40 pm | Fair 62º

Do Bilingual Teachers Hold Key to Latino Students’ Achievement Gap?

Mission & State Report: Santa Barbara school district wooing instructors with Spanish-language skills in bid to improve academic performance among Latinos

Santa Barbara Unified School District trustee Monique Limón says that bringing more bilingual and bicultural teachers into the Santa Barbara Unified School District is an important part of narrowing the achievement gap that sees Latino students performing far below their white counterparts.
Santa Barbara Unified School District trustee Monique Limón says that bringing more bilingual and bicultural teachers into the Santa Barbara Unified School District is an important part of narrowing the achievement gap that sees Latino students performing far below their white counterparts.  (Joshua Molina / Mission & State photo)

By Joshua Molina, Mission & State |

[Click here to read more stories from the Mission & State in-depth journalism project.]

In an attempt to close the achievement gap between white and Latino students, the Santa Barbara Unified School District plans to hire more bilingual and bicultural teachers in 2015 and beyond.

The percentage of Hispanic students in Santa Barbara schools is more than double the percentage of Hispanic teachers.

“Our Latinos are underperforming,” school board member Monique Limón said. “If you know where our students are coming from, their limitations and their strengths, you can add that to your understanding as a teacher and professional.”

The district plans to recruit new hires from “Hispanic-serving institutions,” colleges and universities.

About 60 percent of the Santa Barbara school district’s students are Hispanic, but 75 percent of teachers are white.

District officials say bilingual and bicultural teachers would relate better to Hispanic students, and bring a broader understanding of their specific challenges, whether they be in the classroom or in the home.

The recruitment is part of a broader plan to close the achievement gap, in which Latinos consistently score lower than whites in a variety of academic categories.

Throughout California and the nation, educators are searching for solutions to the achievement gap and ways to boost Hispanic academic performance in all levels of education.

Only 5 percent of the Santa Barbara district’s Hispanic students pass the Early Assessment Program Math Test — given to all students after their junior year of high school to determine if they are college ready.

By contrast, 23 percent of white students are college-ready after their junior year, according to data provided by the district.

Of those taking high school honors courses, 33 percent are Hispanic and 51 percent are white.

In the Early Assessment Program Language Arts test after the junior year, 14 percent of Hispanic students pass, compared to 53 percent of white students.

The effort to hire new teachers comes at a time when the district is involved in several changes that could radically overhaul the face of education on the South Coast.

The district is introducing the new California Common Core curriculum, putting iPads in the hands of students, and preparing for the official Smarter Balance testing in the next school year.

Many of the changes are designed to bridge the education gaps and help boost Latino learning.

Santa Barbara Unified School District Superintendent Dave Cash stresses that with the push for more bilingual teachers, the district will still “pick the best candidates.” (Noozhawk file photo)

In searching for bilingual and bicultural teachers, Superintendent Dave Cash said the district will still “pick the best candidates.”

The new initiative, however, has raised questions about whether the district will sacrifice quality in favor of bilingual skills when hiring new teachers.

“I think this is a great, great gesture,” said John Houchin, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, the union representing teachers in the district.

“It’s a good goal to have, but it’s hard,” he said. “I don’t necessarily believe that just having bilingual, bicultural teachers will close the achievement gap. The teachers have to be qualified.”

Hiring bilingual and bicultural teachers, Houchin said, is a “noble concept,” but the district cannot control who applies for a job.

While Houchin sees bilingual skills as an attribute, he noted that not having them doesn’t mean someone is a bad teacher.

“Ongoing cultural diversity training is critical,” he said.

As educators locally and throughout the state search for ways to boost Hispanic performance, they are also trying to get a grip on the high numbers of English language learners in schools.

California has nearly 1.4 million students classified as English learners, or more than 21 percent of the state’s population.

In the Santa Barbara district, the number of English language learners is 31 percent.

To help better educate these students, the district just last month sent a dozen teachers to the Just Communities Institute For Equity in Education.

The district spent $29,400 — or $1,400 each — to send 21 teachers to learn the institute’s “four Rs”: relationships with teachers, relevance in the curriculum, rigorous academic expectations, and racial injustice in America, and its impact on student learning in the classroom.

Understanding these elements, the district believes, will help teachers connect with Latino students.

Many of the teachers who attended the Just Communities training said it was a life-changing experience.

“It gave me the opportunity to look at this thing called the ‘achievement gap’ in a different way,” said Dovas Zaunius, an English teacher at San Marcos High School. “It is insidious and persistent and guess what? It is still there.”

Houchin said teachers who are bicultural possess a clearer picture of the plight of the child at home, and that understanding could help them teach those students.

“Poverty drives this,” said Houchin, an art teacher. “Poverty is the biggest impact on learning. Teachers need to understand every aspect of poverty, of how families have had to change to survive.

“I think teachers must be trained in cultural sensitivity and in really understanding the full picture of who their student is.”

As much as bilingual skills, knowing the roots of what makes a student fall behind may also be critical. It’s more than just speaking Spanish, Houchin said. Teachers must work to understand how to connect with each student individually.

For example, some teachers may not be aware that parents might be working multiple jobs and are not available as a resource at home for their children.

“If a student falls behind in the third grade, the research says they may never catch up,” Houchin said. “Teachers have had to learn more about differentiated teaching.”

About 38 percent of children in the city of Santa Barbara live in poverty, according to a 2013 Santa Barbara County Department of Social Services report.

The median household income for Latinos, who comprise 43 percent of the county’s population, is $46,274, two-thirds the median for non-Hispanic white households.

Poverty across the county shot up by 52 percent after the recession began in 2008, with child poverty rates increasing by 61 percent, according to a county report.

Nearly 15 percent of all Santa Barbara residents live in poverty, according to U.S. Census data.

With this backdrop, officials believe they have an uphill battle.

Santa Barbara Unified School District trustee Pedro Paz believes students need to feel more included. (Noozhawk file photo)

School board member Pedro Paz said students need to feel included. and that starts with shifts in the hiring process.

“When a student is in the classroom and they don’t see a teacher that looks like them, that matters,” Paz said. “Students need to feel like they are accepted and wanted in the classroom.”

Other barriers also exist.

While the district could have hired more Hispanic teachers in the past, Paz said, it can be easier said than done.

“We have to do a better job of outreach, but it is challenging in general to recruit teachers to live here,” Paz said. “It’s easy for us to say we want this, but it’s more challenging to do it.”

Paz and Limón cited the high cost of living in Santa Barbara as a barrier. They also noted that there’s a smaller pool of bilingual and bicultural teacher candidates from which to draw.

“The truth is, there’s not lot of bilingual teachers being credentialed in California,” Limón said.

At the end of 2013, there were roughly 277,003 credentialed teachers in California from kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the state Department of Education. Of those, 38,647 were authorized bilingual teachers.

As the district looks ahead, officials know big challenges remain.

“There will be individuals hired in our district who are not bilingual and bicultural,” Limón said. “They will bring something important to our classroom. But certain things that we have tried have not worked.

"We have to think about this differently. Having a conversation and awareness about the problem is really important. It is not a quick or easy fix.”

Paz said language and culture skills are not the full solution.

“It’s part of it, but it is not the only part,” Paz said. “It’s just one part of the formula that you have to get right.”

— Joshua Molina is a reporter for the Mission & State in-depth journalism project. Contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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