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New initiative aims to boost bilingual teachers in Santa Fe

SANTA FE – Dozens of teachers at Santa Fe Public Schools are planning to take part in a new initiative aimed at boosting the number of educators trained to teach English as a second language or lead bilingual classrooms.

The district allocated $90,000 in federal pandemic relief last month for the three-year pilot program, which will provide tuition and fee reimbursement for certified teachers who take post-graduate classes to earn an endorsement in teaching English as a second language.

Lisa Vigil, the district’s language and culture department director, told the Santa Fe New Mexican that about a dozen teachers already have enrolled in the college classes this school year and at least 40 have expressed an interest.

Teachers in the new program can take classes at Northern New Mexico College in Española, Santa Fe Community College or New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas.

“I was surprised,” Vigil said of those who have shown an interest in the program. “I didn’t think that a lot of teachers would be as interested as they are.”

Data shows 30% of Santa Fe Public Schools’ K-12 students are English-language learners, who Vigil said likely struggled to heighten their English skills during remote learning last year.

“I can’t even express in words how much it impacted our English learners,” she said. “When you’re in a remote setting, you pretty much eliminated a lot of that opportunity to observe because you don’t want to show your face; you don’t want to be interrupting the class to ask questions.”

Vigil added face masks obscure the visual cues that help language learners gain fluency.

Under state rules, students learning English must receive 45 minutes of language instruction each day from a qualified teacher. That goal has been harder to reach in secondary schools for several years, particularly as teacher vacancies remain high across New Mexico, Vigil said.

Only 49 higher education students statewide completed an endorsement program in bilingual education or teaching English as a second language at a state college or university in the 2020-21 school year, according to research from New Mexico State University, while 9% of the 1,048 teacher vacancies reported in 2021 – more than 90 positions – had “bilingual” specified in the job title.

At Santa Fe Public Schools, the graduation rate for students identified as English-language learners was 82.5%, lower than the district’s overall graduation rate of 86.3% for 2019-20. Statewide, 75.8% of English learners, who made up nearly one third of the state’s high school seniors in 2020, made it to the finish line.

“We see shortages in both (bilingual and English as a second language teachers), and we rely heavily on international exchange teachers or visiting teachers to provide bilingual education,” Vigil said.

Through the new program, the reimbursement will apply to tuition for 14 credit hours and will include costs for textbooks and application fees.

Vigil said the district had a similar reimbursement program several years ago.

“It’s very difficult to find teachers with a specialized endorsement, which is why we’re trying to build capacity within our current teacher population,” Vigil said. “We’re not really able to seek outside of our current teacher population right now.”