How Portland Public Schools is Building a Pipeline of Bilingual Teachers

Blog Post
March 28, 2016

The growing push to expand dual immersion programs in states and districts across the country is prompting a question: Where can administrators find bilingual teachers? Data on teacher shortages from the U.S. Department of Education show that about half of states report current or past shortages in bilingual teachers (this is even true in New York, which has an abundance of certified teachers). Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given the language profile of the American teaching force: just 11.2 percent speak a non-English language at home.

At Portland Public Schools (PPS), which runs 26 dual immersion programs, the bilingual teacher shortage is having an impact on their current programs and expansion plans. At the start of the 2015–16 school year, PPS was 14 dual immersion and world language teachers short. This forced the district to reconfigure their model in some schools. Next year the district anticipates that it will need 43 new teachers to staff their dual immersion, world language, and native literacy programs — and that’s without any attrition of current staff.

“Dual language immersion has been the number one hire at PPS for many years running because, with our equity work, the board has said go forth and expand as fast as possible. We have a staffing shortage,” shared Michael Bacon, Assistant Director of Dual Language Immersion at PPS, “We’ve done trips to Puerto Rico, we have brought in visiting international teachers, but that’s still not meeting the need that we have. So we decided that we need to grow them ourselves.”

The district is partnering with Portland State University (PSU) to develop the Portland Dual Language Teacher Fellows, an alternative certification program for bilingual teachers. Luckily, PSU has significant experience in this area, its Bilingual Teacher Pathway (BTP) program has helped 300 bilingual school support staff become licensed teachers over the past 16 years. The mission of BTP is to help fill critical shortages of bilingual educators across the Portland region (in PPS and nearby districts). To accomplish that, BTP partners with local school districts to recruit bilingual paraprofessionals and prepare them for teacher licensure.

These paraprofessionals are the “unseen treasures” in the community according to Dr. Esperanza De La Vega, Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the BTP program at PSU. “One of the things we find with candidates is that they already come with an understanding of what learning a second language means,” said De La Vega, “In my opinion, they’re more ready to dive deeply into the issues in education because they have been working in schools and see the day to day lives of kids and families.”

The Bilingual Teacher Pathway is a two-year program that provides candidates with an option to earn either a BA in Liberal Studies or an MA in Education, which means that it’s open to candidates with a range of educational experiences and backgrounds. Given the diversity of BTP students, the program is designed to be extremely responsive to their unique needs, circumstances and to address potential barriers in completing their degree.

Paraprofessionals may face significant financial barriers in attaining their teacher licensure due to the costs of tuition and lost-income from enrolling in a full-time program. So BTP uses a federal grant to cover all tuition costs for candidates in the BA program and to help pay 50 percent of tuition of those enrolled in the MA program. However, as Dr. De La Vega pointed out, “those grants are finite,” so the program is working with local districts to find out how they can financially support their candidates.

There are potential academic obstacles as well. The program requires that all applicants have a minimum of 90 hours of post-secondary credits. Many candidates also need foundational coursework related to the cultural and historical context of the U.S., says De La Vega. “The hardest thing that we’ve seen is individuals who are born, raised and educated in another country and then come to the US when they’re in middle school or high school. They end up having a lot of gaps in their knowledge,” she noted, “Those individuals may be natural teachers, awesome with kids and families but their gaps in specific content make it problematic to pass the Praxis or other teacher exit exams.” To that end BTP has a variety of support structures in place to help candidates develop the skills and build some of their content knowledge.

BTP only produces about 12–15 new teachers per year, which is well below local demand. In fact, recruiting and hiring of their bilingual teachers has become increasingly competitive. “This summer I had students who were recruited and hired and hadn’t even finished the program but [were] being put in classrooms. It’s getting a little cut throat,” noted de la Vega. So Bacon and De La Vega, along with their colleagues at PPS and PSU, used the existing BTP framework to design the new alternative certification program that will enroll 50 candidates and place them into classrooms almost immediately.

But that process was not without tension, “We had a tough couple of meetings where we had to negotiate and put all the cards on the table and ask the hard questions. How can you put someone who’s not trained in the classroom with ELLs? These kids need the best teachers,” shared De La Vega. PPS assuaged her concerns by emphasizing that these teachers will receive significant support, mentoring, and observations to help enhance their practice.

The program will require potential candidates to apply both to Portland State University and for a teaching job in PPS. Accepted candidates will go through a summer “boot camp” that will cover topics such as classroom management, curriculum and instruction and attend a two-week dual language institute.

Just like BTP, the new alternative certification programs is being designed to soften possible barriers for candidates. Residents will start with a restricted transitional teaching license, receive a full salary and benefits, and be able to use their professional development funds to pay for some of the PSU credits. According to Bacon, “We realized that what we needed to do was break down barriers. We had a lot of bilingual people in our schools, in our community. It’s a resource that we aren’t currently tapping into.” Specifically, PPS is providing potential candidates with financial assistance, and has hired a full time HR coordinator to recruit, track, and support candidates through the process. Additionally, they worked with the Oregon Teacher Standards and Practice Commission to waive the requirement that teachers in the program take the Praxis right away. Teacher licensure exams can be a significant challenge  for candidates whose first language is not English and are often one of the biggest barriers faced by multilingual teacher candidates.

Even before the program had formally launched, there was already substantial interest from the community — without any formal recruitment efforts PPS had already identified 24 potential candidates for the program in the fall of 2015. “I think what we’re seeing is there’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm about this. It seems very plausible this is the way that we are going to meet the needs in our system at this point in time,” shared Bacon.

--This post is part of New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Click here for more information on this team's work. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, click here, enter your contact information, and select "Education Policy.""