Education: Bilingual ed is alive, well and living in USC Rossier School

Elida Cossio, a teaching assistant at Humpreys Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles, is training to become a bilingual teacher.

Photo by Irene Fertik

When California’s English-only law passed nearly three years ago, some school principals piled up their bilingual textbooks and sent them out to the trash.

They warned teachers not to speak Spanish in the classroom, and adopted an all-English curriculum.

Many feared that bilingual education would die along with such award-winning programs as the Latino Teacher Project in the USC Rossier School of Education.

Neither happened.

Several schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District and elsewhere quietly kept their bilingual programs for children whose parents signed waivers.

And the Latino Teacher Project not only survived, but has grown.

Now in its ninth year, the Latino Teacher Project has stuck with its original goals: to recruit bilingual teaching assistants and encourage them to get into the teaching profession. “When Proposition 227 passed, we were certainly worried,” said Reynaldo Baca, co-director of the Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research. “We weren’t quite sure what the fallout would be. We had to make modifications to our program; there’s no doubt about that. But I think we’ve gotten stronger.”

In many cases, bilingual education has shown notable successes, especially in test scores, Baca said.

Spanish-language students enrolled in bilingual classrooms fared better than their counterparts in English-only classes, according to a recent study by Californians Together, a group of academics in Sacramento.

The 1999-2000 study found that 63 schools with bilingual education programs did better on tests on academic achievement in English than more than 1,000 similar schools, which provided most of their instruction in English.

“All of the students came from low-income families where parents have limited formal education,” said Michael Genzuk, co-director of the Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research. “Both sets of schools did make progress on California’s Academic Performance Index in 1999-2000. But the bilingual schools exceeded their growth targets for students by almost five times, while the comparison schools exceeded their targets by only four times.”

The Latino Teacher Project was selected by the U.S. Department of Education as a model for other universities to follow and was recognized as exemplary. Baca and Genzuk regularly speak at educational conferences and universities throughout the country about the Latino Teacher Project.

“There is a lot of interest in how bilingual education teachers are trained and their effectiveness,” Baca said.

Despite Proposition 227, the demand for bilingual teachers in California and Los Angeles remains strong. Currently in California there is a shortage of about 30,000 teachers with credentials authorizing instruction to second-language students, Baca said.

“People come in and recruit bilingual teachers like football players,” Genzuk said. “There’s a chronic shortage of people of color in education. This project is one of the few in the nation that focuses on bringing Latinos into the profession. About 85 percent of those preparing to become teachers in the United States are white and female.”

This year, the Latino Teacher Project fed schools in Los Angeles, Montebello, Lennox, Little Lake and Baldwin Park school districts with 33 credentialed bilingual and Latino teachers. That’s up from just six teachers in 1992.

The Latino Teacher Project extends beyond USC, preparing educators at Cal State L.A., San Bernardino, Dominguez Hills and Northridge, Loyola Marymount University, Azusa Pacific University, Occidental College, and Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach and Cal Poly Pomona.

This year, 200 teaching assistants are enrolled in the program, compared to 50 in 1992.

Elida Cossio, a senior education major, is one of those student teachers. She became interested in bilingual education as a high school student when she volunteered at her elementary school in South Central Los Angeles.

“I have been able to see how effective bilingual education is,” Cossio said. “I was really upset when Proposition 227 passed. I joined the Latino Project because after 227 there weren’t that many schools that offered bilingual education teaching programs.”

Cossio is receiving her classroom training at Humphreys Avenue Elementary School in East Los Angeles, which is 98 percent Latino.

On a recent morning, Cossio managed to keep the attention of 24 fourth and fifth graders as they read the Los Angeles Daily News out loud in class.

“I can relate to the kids because I was put in school not knowing English that well,” Cossio said. “If I had bilingual education I would’ve known more. I’ve always done well in school but I had to work twice as hard.”

Her classroom walls are decorated with student artwork, a calendar in English and Spanish and a message above the door reading, “El respecto al derecho ajenos es la paz,” which translated means “respecting each other is the only way to get peace.”

“The Latino project is great support system,” Cossio said. “I’ve gotten to know a lot of other Latina teachers, who are going through the same things.”

Karen Gallagher, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education, said the Latino Teacher Project is one of the school’s hallmarks.

“It demonstrates the commitment of the Rossier School of Education to solving the pressing needs of Los Angeles schools, students and their families,” Gallagher said. “This program is effective because it combines theory and research-based knowledge with practical application in real schools.”

Genzuk said another unique feature of the Latino Teacher Project is its credential rate. “It takes between four and seven years for students to complete the project,” Genzuk said. “But most students do finish. Our completion rate is more than 95 percent. I think in nine years, we’ve had only three students drop out. And one left for Florida because her husband was relocated.”