This story is part of a series looking at Arizona’s essential workers and is funded by the Solutions Journalism Network. Arizona Luminaria was selected as one of the newsrooms to participate in SJN’s Labor Cohort. This story is also supported by a grant from the Arizona Community Foundation for in-depth reporting on Latino education equity opportunities and gaps.

Felina Rodríguez looked hard, searching for her mother in a school auditorium packed with parents ready to see their children perform. She stood on her tiptoes to make herself taller and craned her neck to see better across the stage. But Felina didn’t find her mom.

Maybe she was running late? Did something happen? She knew that her mother wouldn’t miss this moment for anything.

Felina had just started first grade at an elementary school on the south side of Tucson. It was her first time performing as part of the cast for a school play. She was only 6, and still learning English. She was proud but a bit nervous. 

She needed to feel safe.

If she could meet her mother’s eyes in the sea of strangers, she knew she’d be OK.

María Lourdes never arrived. 

It wasn’t because she didn’t want to be with her daughter on her big day. The teacher decided to change the location of the play. On the door of his classroom, he posted a short message – written in English – directing parents to the new location.

But María Lourdes couldn’t speak English. She didn’t understand what the teacher’s message said.

Many years later, Felina is sitting in front of the Burton Barr public library in central Phoenix. It’s a chilly December afternoon and she waves to students who recognize her. 

Felina thinks about that 6-year-old girl. How she waited for her mother. How she went on stage with no family in the audience to cheer for her.

“I still remember that moment with anger,” she says.

Felina graduated from high school without ever having the opportunity to learn from a teacher who spoke her Spanish language or who shared her Latina background.

Two decades have passed. Felina is now a teacher herself.

She’s an advocate for bilingual education and for better work-training programs for teachers in Arizona who educate and care for many Latino and Spanish-speaking students.

Felina sees potential for achieving these goals in a new program at Arizona State University that aims to prepare teachers to educate and support linguistically and culturally diverse multilingual learners. In a state where the teacher-retention crisis is so dire that Gov. Katie Hobbs has created a task force to stem the wave of educators fleeing the profession, the new program may be a resource for civic leaders seeking solutions.

It’s also the type of program that may have helped Felina’s Arizona elementary school teacher understand what a 6-year-old from a Spanish-speaking, immigrant family needed most.

Multicultural and multilingual education

Born in Tucson with Mexican roots, Felina calls herself “a teacher and activist.” 

She’s convinced that political and social change begins in the classroom. She’s taught in an Arizona education system that’s “racist and discriminatory,” and says she won’t stop working to change that for her students.

Felina says she went to college to become a bilingual education teacher and fight for education that provides all students with the same opportunities regardless of their native language or their race or ethnicity. It’s been a struggle, she says, for teachers in a state with laws that mandated English-only classes and segregated many Latino children from their peers.

Year after year, decade after decade, she says, teachers watch their students suffer and fall behind in a separate and unequal education system. 

Felina’s done her best with students like herself who speak Spanish. She’s stuck it out in a Phoenix school district through a historic teachers strike in 2018, and has witnessed thousands of her fellow educators – tired of low wages, substandard training and inadequate investments in education funding – leave behind the work and children they love.

Marisol Garcia, a leader of the Arizona Education Association, gathered in 2022 with educators at the state Capitol to again ask lawmakers to funnel a bigger chunk of the state’s $5 billion budget surplus into public schools.
Marisol Garcia, a leader of the Arizona Education Association, gathered in 2022 with educators at the state Capitol to again ask lawmakers to funnel a bigger chunk of the state’s $5 billion budget surplus into public schools. Credit: Troy Hill/Cronkite News

The teacher-retention crisis in Arizona is so chronic that one month into the 2022-23 school year, more than a quarter, or 27%, of the teaching positions remained unfilled, according to a Arizona Personnel Administrators Association study. Dig deeper and the issue worsens with 42% of the teaching positions that were filled, having relied on substitute and other alternative teachers who did not meet the state’s standard certification requirements. 

Felina says the crisis trickles down to everyone, but is worse for historically marginalized students and teachers challenged by diversity gaps and language barriers.

In Arizona, the number of bilingual and Latino teachers is not representative of the number of students of that ethnicity.

While Latino students make up almost half of the 1.1 million K-12 students in the state, only 16% of Arizona teachers and administrators are Latino, according to data from the Arizona Department of Education analyzed by the nonprofit ALL In Education in a 2021-2022 report. The nonprofit advocacy group in Arizona ensures communities most impacted by education inequities are the ones making decisions.

The state’s GOP-led Legislature has passed English-only laws creating barriers for teachers who want to support their students in learning reading, writing and math skills in Spanish while they learn English, so they don’t fall behind in their studies compared to their peers. Felina says many Latino and Spanish-speaking teachers have long lacked the support and professional training they need to support Latino students and keep teaching in a state where K-12 educators already face a long list of obstacles.

Education experts believe that for Arizona’s school system and all students to succeed, it is necessary to address diversity gaps in the state’s teacher workforce and to ensure that Spanish-speaking Latino students have broad access to bilingual education.

That’s among the many reasons ASU professors advocated for launching a new Bachelor of Arts in Education in Elementary Multilingual Education.

One of the creators of the ASU program says that the first cohort of enrolled students recognize the value of diversity in the classroom. Professors are experts — in multicultural and multilingual education — who want to prepare their students to become teachers who arrive at Arizona schools with knowledge that “goes beyond knowing another language,” says Claudia Cervantes-Soon. Claudia is an ASU professor who studies bilingual education, educational anthropology and Chicana/Latina feminism.

Claudia G. Cervantes-Soon, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Arizona State University. Credit: Cortesía Claudia Cervantes-Soon

“They come with a pedagogical preparation, they bring dispositions and cultural knowledge,” Claudia says. “They understand the complexity that our bilingual students experience. They research and learn about minority communities and children who cross borders. They ask about the Indigenous origins of the students.”

Felina says ASU’s new multilingual program is a lifesaver for bilingual Latino teachers like herself who want better professional training to feel prepared to better support and advocate for their students. It’s also a way to show that your language and cultural skills have value in the Arizona education workforce, she says.

Proponents say that one of the biggest indicators that the program is already working to recruit and serve more teachers to address the diversity gap — so that more educators reflect their students’ ethnicity and race — is evident in the cohort’s demographics.

Currently, there are about 25 students enrolled in the new program, Claudia says, of which an estimated 80% are of Latino/a/x and/or Mexican descent, and the majority speak Spanish and English. 

Teacher retention, closing the diversity gap and strengthening bilingual education

For Arizona to succeed, Latino children — who are expected to represent more than 50% of the student population in the state by 2026 — must have the same success as White children, stress experts at the Helios Education Foundation. Helios is a nonprofit that supports postsecondary education attainment for low-income and under-represented communities in Arizona and Florida.

Civic, economic and education leaders, as well as families of children learning a new language, say multilingual education is a long-overlooked investment in training for teachers in states like Arizona with large immigrant and large Latino populations. 

Nationwide, the number of Spanish-speakers in the U.S. rose from 24.6 million in 2000 to 39.9 million in 2021, according to a Pew Research Center report.

Arizona’s multilingual program launched last year, but states like California have a history of successful similar university programs to bolster support for teachers and their students. San Diego State University is one the state’s oldest of such programs, and has shown success in addressing the teacher-student diversity gap, as well as in filling a growing need for bilingual education. 

The university produces California’s largest number of bilingual teachers. Educators credit that success to maintaining its dual-language education department despite the 1998 state law that eliminated K-12 bilingual education programs, forcing students with limited English-language skills into separate English-only classes. The law was repealed in 2016 but the statewide education system has struggled to meet the needs of students who’ve long been left behind.

The SDSU program has been so successful it received a $3.7 million Hispanic-Serving Institutions grant from the U.S. Department of Education to partner with three community colleges. The goal is to expand its training program to increase the number of Latino and bilingual teachers in California and address teacher retention and shortages.

The program focuses on solutions for addressing disparities and serving Latino students, who make up more than 50% of California’s K-12 student body. Yet, only 20% of teachers of the same background work in a state that estimates needing at least 6,000 bilingual teachers over the next decade, according to university officials.

The program has created a pipeline from across the country, while the local partnership opened space for about 100 students from San Diego community colleges.

“For me, this really shows access and equity,” said Karen Cadiero-Kaplan, a former chair of SDSU’s Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education, in a university announcement launching the expansion. “A lot of times students want to teach in the communities where they went to school – in their communities. This is a great way to start that.”

Education experts say the multilingual program is critical in Arizona, where each year a wave of teachers leave the profession. In February, Arizona’s newly-elected Democratic governor announced a task force to find solutions for teacher retention.

“There are too many amazing professionals who had to leave a career they love because of the uncompetitive salaries, onerous policies, and unfunded mandates that rob educators of the joy of teaching,” Hobbs said. “As the sister of two public school teachers, I see how hard they work every day on behalf of their students. Teachers are creating the workforce and leaders of tomorrow, and it’s time we started treating them with the respect they deserve. We can and must do better and this executive order is the first step of many to support our educators, students and parents.”

Alejandra Nieland and Felina Rodríguez pose for a picture in front of a large chalkboard with an ASU logo. They are wearing maroon-colored caps and gowns for graduation and holding flowers and diplomas.
Alejandra Nieland and Felina Rodríguez graduated from ASU with Master’s in Educational Policy and Bilingual Education degrees in May 2019. Credit: Cortesia Alejandra Nieland

The product of a school system that suppressed Spanish

Felina started elementary school in 2000, the year voters approved Proposition 203, a ballot initiative that eliminated the bilingual education system, ending instruction in Spanish. 

Arizona became the second state, following California, to nix bilingual education — which allowed teachers to educate students in their native language, while also learning English — for English-immersion classes.

Proponents said the goal of the new policy was to force children to learn in English as soon as possible to ensure their academic success.

Hundreds of educators and Latino families raised their voices against it, arguing it was anti-immigrant and that the law would only limit the education of Arizona’s large Latino and Spanish-speaking student body, forcing children to abandon their native language and fall behind in their academic studies.

Felina says it was a dark time for education in Arizona. In the schools, Spanish was associated with marginalization and shame.

Felina owes the Spanish she has retained to the perseverance of her mother María Lourdes, who was adamant that her family only speak their native language at home.

Born in Sonora, México and raised on the other side of the border with Arizona, Maria Lourdes felt that her immigrant family was finding its way in a new country and honoring their roots.

But while María Lourdes motivated her daughter to speak Spanish at home, Felina faced belonging to an education system that eliminated bilingual education classes in Arizona.

Proposition 203 forced children who did not speak English to enroll in an intensive immersion program for four hours a day known as ELL (English Language Learners). Felina says the state-mandated policy continues to take a toll on the academic development of students, most of them immigrants.

It also took a toll on her career as a new teacher.

“When I started kindergarten in 2000 we had bilingual classes, but that ended with the new law,” she says. “That’s the moment when the battle in Arizona began, since it is scientifically proven that immersion is not effective for academic progress.”

Education professors Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier are internationally recognized for their extensive research into the effectiveness of dual-language education programs over immersion programs in schools. Their analysis of 36 school districts in 16 states and of more than 7.5 million student records is relied upon for school leaders implementing bilingual or dual-language education programs across the country.

Their findings aren’t just great for children, they’re a gold standard for teachers like Felina who want their students learning English to thrive in school: The study showed higher test scores, happier kids, improved attendance, fewer behavioral problems and greater parent involvement.

Becoming the teacher she never had

There are moments that defined Felina’s future as a teacher and advocate for multilingual and multicultural education.

Felina feels that her teachers and Arizona’s education system failed her by not teaching her about Mexican American history and the enormous legacy of Mexican leaders César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, civil and human rights leaders and labor icons for farmworkers.

“There are many things I learned as an adult that I feel I should have learned when I was younger,” she says. “I didn’t know about Dolores Huerta’s struggle and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo until I was in college.”

Many Arizona teachers felt the effects of Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, passed by the GOP-led state Legislature in 2010. Children feared their immigrant parents would be deported. That fear seeped into classrooms. Felina felt that fear.

At the time, the so-called “show me your papers” law was considered the harshest policy in the country when it came to criminalizing the presence of immigrants.

Officially called the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, the broad law allowed the police to question people regarding their immigration status if the officer had “reasonable” motive to suspect that a person was in the country illegally.

“I was in eighth grade when SB 1070 was passed,” she says. “I remember that my mom became a U.S. citizen when I was in the fourth grade. I was still afraid that she would be deported.”

As a little girl, Felina yearned to change the laws that hurt her family and her community.

“I was so angry with SB 1070. With the state of Arizona. I was so angry with former Governor Jan Brewer that one day I thought I would be president to change those decisions,” she says. “That’s how I became interested in politics.”

Felina worked as an organizer for the Democratic Party for the 2016 electoral campaign. She dreamed of going to law school and becoming a famous lawyer in order to get involved in politics.

But she became disillusioned with the division, rhetoric and lack of action on immigration reform in politics.

“That’s when I decided to explore education,” she says. “After experiencing all of that, this is what I became.”

Being a Mexican teacher, a bilingual teacher and the daughter of immigrants influences how she views education in Arizona.

“I’m not just a teacher. I’m also a teacher activist, because as part of the movement — I also take action to help improve the lives of students,” she says.

She is the first member of her family to graduate from college. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Spanish and political science and a master’s degree in secondary bilingual education.

Felina adjusts her black leather jacket. The afternoon is cold and gray, but she smiles with a hint of satisfaction. 

“That’s how I became the teacher I never had,” she says.

Felina Rodríguez is reading a library book in front of rows of books. She is seated on a lime-green bench.
Felina Rodríguez sentada en la biblioteca Burton Barr Central Library en Phoenix. Felina Rodríguez sits in the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix. Credit: Beatriz Limón

Feeling “completely silly” for not speaking English.

The first time Claudia, the ASU education professor, felt embarrassed for not speaking English like her American peers was when she began her college education at the University of Texas-El Paso.

Born in Ciudad Juárez, like thousands of borderlands youth, she decided to pursue a professional career in the United States, but English was an enormous hurdle she had to overcome.

In México, Claudia took English classes in high school, which gave her the confidence to enroll in the Programa de Asistencia Estudiantil, or PASE. The program allows students from México to pay college tuition as if they were a Texas resident.

She loved her classes but the language barriers made her feel “really small.” During class, she tried to go unnoticed by her professors and speak as little as possible with her classmates.

“University English is very different. That was the first time in my life that I knew what it was like to feel completely silly, because I did not speak English well,” Claudia says.

Claudia, who initially wanted to major in business, decided to change her destiny when she heard about the benefits of a bilingual education for migrant communities and students in general.

“I even got goosebumps,” she says, remembering learning about the new path that would change her life and the lives of other Spanish-speaking students. “I wanted to promote pride in my language.”

She had spent years in college feeling very insecure because she didn’t know the intellectual, professional and cultural advantages of knowing her native language and other languages.

“I realized that bilingual education was about more than language; it was a process of identity, a connection with our history, ancestors and communities,” she says.

Claudia currently holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in bilingual education from the University of Texas-El Paso, as well as a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction, Cultural Studies in Education from the same university.

Her research has focused on equity and social justice in bilingual education, such as literacy and instruction for young border and transborder people, as well as for Mexicans and Latinos.

Her long career and understanding of bilingual education gave her the expertise needed to help design ASU’s new Elementary Multilingual Education program to serve, train and support teachers and students.

She recognizes that the lack of representation among teachers is increasingly troublesome. She worries that Latino students in Arizona are academically disadvantaged by inequitable education systems compared to White students.

An estimated 46% of the 1.1 million students in Arizona’s elementary and high school students are Latino. The college graduation rate for Latinos and Hispanics in Arizona was 15.2%, compared to 18.4% nationwide, according to a 2021 University of Arizona study. That’s significantly lower than the 37.6% of White students in the state who earned university degrees, which is on par with the national rate (37.3%).

Claudia and her colleagues know that the state’s education system needs to be overhauled to more equitably serve all students in K-12 schools, and to increase the enrollment and graduation of students of color at the three state universities.

For now, she says, the new program at ASU is an important step forward in preparing teachers who are trained linguistically and culturally to serve students from historically marginalized backgrounds.

Alejandra Nieland poses for a photo. She is wearing a white dress, a colorful graduation stole, and a maroon mortar board graduation cap.
Alejandra Nieland at her ASU Master of Education Policy graduation in May 2019. Credit: Nathalia Flores

One teacher among the many leaving Arizona schools

Alejandra Nieland was a teacher in Phoenix. She experienced so much frustration that it led her to quit her job. 

“I fought hard to have that block of four hours in English immersion removed,” she says. “In those four hours, the students did not have enough time to finish their time in math. The kids did not take science classes.”

For almost two decades, immigrant and Spanish-speaking students in Arizona have been confined to four hours of immersion in English-language classrooms on a daily basis.

There are thousands of students who have spent half their day learning English — missing out on other core classes critical to earning a high school diploma and going to college — as a result of the policy approved in 2000, which established a strict regimen for instruction in the student’s new language.

Alejandra knew that the state law prevented her students from reaching their full academic potential and their dreams.

The statistics confirm that. Of the 39,626 Latino students who enrolled in high school in 2020, only 29,725 graduated, according to the MAPA, The State Of Arizona Latinos Education, Power and Influence study conducted by ALL In Education analyzing state education data. Only 6,472 Latino students enrolled in college in 2020 and, of those, only 3,371 graduated, according to the study.

The report spotlights gaps in education between Latino and White students.  In 2021, Latino third-graders showed a 23% reading proficiency rate compared to 50% for White students in the same grade. Latino eighth-graders showed a 16% math proficiency rate compared to 39% for White students. For that same period, Latino students graduated high school at a rate of 75%, while White students graduated at a rate of 83%.

Experts say the study offers stark arguments in favor of providing more equitable educational support for teachers who want all their students to succeed, as well as for students who are being left behind as Arizona faces the economic strain of a lacking college-trained workforce.

As an English Language Development teacher, Alejandra says she tried speaking with her school administrators, attempting to explain that it was possible for students to improve their English-language skills without being excluded from standard education classes.

She did not succeed.

Some of her students asked, “Why can’t we take science classes?”

“Unfortunately, the science class was next to the classroom and they could hear the other students getting excited with experiments, while my kids were confined to four hours of grammar,” she says.

Her students learned to “hate” her class.

Exasperated, Alejandra decided to speak to the science teacher to see if some of her high school students could secretly take his class.

“I asked him about the possibility of my students going into his class, at least at the end,” she says. “I was going to provide them with vocabulary in Spanish and he was going to adapt the content of the science class to English to offer them that class in the immersion.”

The other teacher agreed. And so they used a door that connected to the two classrooms, and without school administrators noticing, the ELL students were able to spend some time learning in the science class.

“All they wanted was to take a little science,” said Alejandra. 

Fed up with the barriers and inequalities her students faced, she decided to quit her job to devote herself full-time to completing her master’s degree in education policy. She wanted to see if she could change the system.

“I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “I decided to get out because I didn’t feel satisfied because I felt I was harming my students.”

Alejandra left Arizona and moved to Denver.

About a year later, in 2019, educators argued in support of Senate Bill 1014, stemming English immersion education in Arizona. The bill was sponsored by two Republicans, Sen. Paul Boyer and Rep. Michelle Udall, and approved unanimously by the Arizona Legislature.

The law allows public schools and teachers to develop their own evidence-based models according to the individual needs of students, and to reduce the hours of English-language immersion to two hours.

The new policy was lauded by Arizona’s former superintendent of public education, Kathy Hoffman.

“For the past two decades, Arizona’s English language learner students have suffered from a misguided policy that left them isolated, undereducated, and unprepared to enter the workforce,” Hoffman said in a statement. “The passage of this legislation will give tens of thousands of ELL students a greater chance of succeeding in school and in life, and their success will benefit all Arizonans.”

Hoffman, a Democrat, lost her re-election bid in 2022 to Republican Tom Horne.

Horne campaigned on a conservative platform and is widely known for pushing for a ban of a Mexican American studies program in Tucson.

During his previous term as Arizona’s top education official, Horne successfully lobbied a GOP-led state Legislature to approve a 2010 law to restrict ethnic studies education programs. The legislation stood for seven years, until a lawsuit brought by Latino students and their parents.

In 2017, a federal judge found that both the “enactment and enforcement” of the ban “were motivated by racial animus,” violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution by discriminating against Latinos.

“Students have a First Amendment right to receive information and ideas,” Judge A. Wallace Tashima wrote in his decision. “That right “applies in the context of school curriculum design.”

Not all students in Arizona get to benefit from bilingual programs

The 2019 law aimed at stemming strict English immersion classes in Arizona isn’t a cure-all for teachers or all students.

Anna Manzano, dual-language program coordinator at Tucson Unified School District, the largest in Arizona, explains that state laws don’t allow students who don’t speak fluent English to join bilingual programs.

“The law still includes restrictions for students who, for example, want to participate in this type of program, but still are not fluent in English. They are not allowed to receive this benefit,” she says.

In 2014, then-Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1242 into law. In it is a clause that prohibits ELL students or those who are learning English as a second language to access bilingual education.

“It’s a great obstacle because there are many migrant children who come to schools in Arizona,” Anna says. “We are excluding them from a program that produces the best results for students who are learning English as a second language.”

Anna Manzano, dual language coordinator at the Tucson Unified School District. Credit: Cortesía Anna Manzano

She noted that many kids still must be confined to the immersion program in English for two or more hours, which affects their grades, their ability to graduate from high school and their progress towards college.

Still, Tucson Unified School District has 11 schools and more than 2,500 students who participate in a program known as the 50-50 Dual Language Immersion Model. Anna would like to expand the dual-language program to benefit all students. But in order to have more bilingual programs, she says, we need more bilingual teachers.

She is convinced that investing in Spanish-language education benefits not only teachers and their students, but all of Arizona, where the population is 32.3% Latino, according to 2021 U.S. Census data.

Increasing the number of people who graduate from college adds $660,000 per student to Arizona’s economy, including through increased earnings, paying more in taxes and relying less on social services, according to an analysis by Education Forward Arizona.

Increasing the number of people of all ethnicities and races, particularly Latinos, who graduate from college to the same number as the White graduating population, would result in $2.3 billion dollars in economic and social gains for each graduating class, according to the study.

Education experts at the Helios Education Foundation, the non-profit that supports postsecondary attainment for low-income and under-represented communities in Arizona and Florida, argue that the biggest challenge is equitably preparing students who have the potential to pursue higher education. But from the start, Latino students seem to be at a disadvantage, especially when compared to their White counterparts, according to a study by the organization.

The lack of representation among teachers is increasingly pressing considering that the student population in Arizona has become more and more diverse.

The teacher workforce is still overwhelmingly White. For example, in 2018, White teachers accounted for nearly 80% of all teachers on a national level, while 9% were Latino, 7% were Black and 2% were Asian, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Between Latino students and teachers, the gap is even more pronounced. While Latino students represent 28% of the total student population, teachers of their ethnicity represent only 9% of the teacher workforce. That is the largest gap between students and teachers of any racial or ethnic group.

In Arizona, 74% of principals were White, while 21% were Latino. For teachers, 76% were White and 14% were Latino.

Education researchers in Pennsylvania and Texas studied benefits of closing the diversity gap, which teachers like Felina have long advocated for.

The 2022 report, — “Do High School Students With a Same-Race Teacher Attend Class More Often?” —shows how students benefit in school when they have teachers of their same racial or ethnic background. Students with teachers of the same race or ethnicity are more likely to improve academic performance, attendance and graduation rates.

“The results also indicate that associations were strongest for Latinx students in 11th and 12th grades — the age group in K-12 that has the most individual agency when it comes to getting to school,” the study states.

Data also shows that teachers of color are less likely to suspend or expel students of color for punishments similar to those of their White counterparts.

There are two dominant theories under which investigators credit teachers of color for getting positive results from students who share their race and ethnicity. Students who learn from teachers who are of the same race or ethnicity connect better with those teachers, and therefore, have a more positive attitude toward school.

Similarly, teachers who belong to the same race or ethnicity as their students, tend to have higher expectations for students of color, and therefore, students meet these expectations.

Latino representation among Arizona school teachers matters

For state Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez, D-Phoenix, it’s important for state leaders to empathize with the struggle of Latino students and immigrants who are learning a new language. He knows from personal history how the right support helped him work through this struggle.

Hailing from Durango, México, he arrived in the U.S. at the age of 5. Marcelino learned English and improved his Spanish thanks to bilingual education programs in public schools.

“I learned to speak English in these schools. I was put into a bilingual program. It was very beneficial because I had a home where I could speak Spanish, and I got better at it in school along with English,” he says.

His extensive career in education puts him in a position to recognize how beneficial it would be for Arizona to have more Latino and more bilingual teachers in school classrooms.

State Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez, D-Phoenix, learned English and improved his Spanish thanks to bilingual education programs in public schools. Credit: Cortesia State Rep. Marcelino Quiñonez

“I understand the importance of representation in classrooms, especially when we know that the percentage of Latino students is very high here, as in the rest of Arizona,” he says. 

A 2011 study, “Teacher Diversity Matters,” by the Center for American Progress analyzed national education data to underline the widespread teacher diversity gap across the U.S.

“This is a problem for students, schools, and the public at large. Teachers of color serve as role models for students, giving them a clear and concrete sense of what diversity in education — and in our society — looks like,” the report says. “A recent review of empirical studies also shows that students of color do better on a variety of academic outcomes if they’re taught by teachers of color.”

Yet, teachers of color are not equitably represented in the teacher workforce. Part of the problem lies in the rates of education disparities for students of color, which makes it harder for a greater number of them to attend college and gain a teaching or any degree. 

The study suggests that to create a solid pipeline of teachers of color, it is necessary to promote academic access for all students in the K-12 system. 

Other factors, the study says, that impede the education of students of color are economic and societal, such as racial discrimination that has limited educational, economic and employment opportunities for people of color.

While ASU’s new bilingual education program is one solution, it does not address wider barriers for training and supporting more teachers, especially ones from historically marginalized backgrounds. 

As an immediate solution, Marcelino suggests that expanding access to higher education through scholarships would increase the number of students interested in becoming teachers and the number of low-income Latino high school graduates on track to earn college degrees. 

To partially address this need in public schools, Marcelino notes that recently, the state Legislature approved $12 million for the program Arizona Promise, which will be reflected in fiscal year 2023. Arizona Promise is a program funded by the Arizona Board of Regents that offers scholarships for qualifying students to cover tuition and other costs of attending one of the state’s public universities.

“All students with low incomes have the opportunity to go to college through these scholarships,” he says.

Before he became a legislator, Marcelino was the director of education extension at ASU, a Roosevelt Elementary School District governing board member in Phoenix and a high school theater teacher. He also sees promise in ASU’s new education program for teachers to focus on supporting multilingual and multicultural students.

“ASU, where I come from, has this new bilingual program,” he says with pride, adding that the university degree is an important part of a holistic approach to serving teachers and students.

A group of students and teachers pose for a photo on a sunny patio.
Claudia Cervantes-Soon, junto a los profesores del programa de Educación Multilingüe en ASU, junto a un grupo de estudiantes que están por graduarse de la licenciatura bilingüe. Es la última generación que se gradúan del antiguo programa, los que les preceden entrarán al nuevo programa BAE. Claudia Cervantes-Soon and the professors of the Multilingual Education program at ASU, together with a group of students who are about to graduate from the bilingual bachelor’s degree. It is the last generation to graduate from the old program. The next group will enter the new BAE program. Credit: Cortesía

Generation “English Only” work to become bilingual teachers

Claudia, the ASU education professor, knows what it ‘s like to be marginalized for not speaking English in the classroom. 

She has an in-depth understanding of the challenges faced by thousands of students who emigrate to the U.S. without being fluent in a new language.

Students need to identify with the teacher to perform better academically, she says.

As a solution to this problem, along with other educators, Claudia designed ASU’s new multilingual program as a model that seeks to prepare future generations to become not only bilingual teachers, but role models for their students. Many of her students, she says, will graduate with the resources they need to fully support students who share their language and background.

“I admire the students in this program,” she says. “The majority are first-generation college graduates. They come from immigrant families with minimal resources. They hold two jobs and help their families.”

One of the biggest challenges these students have faced is having survived an education system in which they were not allowed to speak their native language in school.

“They belong to the ‘English Only’ generation. They were children who were in elementary school when bilingual education in Arizona was eliminated,” she says. “I admire them for having spent 12 years being drilled with English to strip them of Spanish.”

“Even so, they make the decision to come to the program to become bilingual teachers,” she says. “It’s a commitment they have to their people. They want to teach children in their communities.”

The new bachelor’s program in Elementary Multilingual Education expects students to specialize in areas to serve Arizona’s diverse students, including in Indigenous education, cultural and cross-border studies and Spanish for students K-8. When students finish their core studies they will shift to the new multilingual program to graduate within two years

Claudia recognizes that the program is still small, but it’s of value that for the first time she and her colleagues feel they have the autonomy to develop it according to the educational needs of teachers and students in Arizona.

The program was created by a diverse group of educators, including three teachers of Latino heritage and one teacher of Arabic heritage, she says, and students have the support of several instructors who come from migrant families.

Alejandra Nieland was a teacher in Phoenix school districts, on her right side is Vanessa Arredondo, who was named Arizona Rural Schools Association Teacher of the Year for 2019-2020. The teachers advocated for themselves and their students during the Red for ED strike. Credit: Cortesia Alejandra Nieland

New bilingual program in Arizona offers hope

Alejandra, the teacher so frustrated by education inequities for students of color that she quit, emigrated from Aguascalientes to Arizona in 1999.

She was 6 years old when she walked into a Maryvale classroom unable to speak English.

It was a culture shock that affects her to this day. She didn’t understand the language. She was intimidated by a new country. Out of fear and shame, for a long time she refused to speak in class, which led her teachers to punish her by reducing her recess time.

They made her feel inferior, she says, by pointing out that she was incapable of writing complete sentences.

“They would punish me for not knowing the difference between an adjective and a noun, absurd things that I can see now as a teacher,” she says. “In those moments, students don’t know and don’t deserve to have recess taken away. It’s a right.”

The trauma she was subjected to in school led her to pursue a bachelor’s degree in bilingual education at ASU to help students who are in the process of learning a new language.

“I can’t forget the trauma. The teachers made me feel inferior. Most of my teachers were White and I get that they would be frustrated with me because I didn’t like to participate,” she says.

Now as a teacher herself, Alejandra understands that when children are learning a new language, they go through a phase of silence during which they process the language and the content.

“That’s why it’s important to have teachers who understand the bilingual process and who have empathy and know how to handle students. Learners need a safe space to begin speaking English,” she says.

Studies in the U.S. and other countries, including Canada, Finland and Switzerland, have shown that children are capable of learning their own language and a second or even a third language, and emerge academically and linguistically competent, according to the report “Bilingual Education,” published by the American Federation of Teachers.

Far from being a problem, bilingualism is an asset for individuals as well as for society. Aside from the obvious intellectual and cultural advantages of speaking two or more languages, bilingualism has been linked to a number of other positive outcomes.

In an exhaustive review of 63 studies, researchers at the Washington State University found that bilingualism is associated with cognitive benefits, such as a stronger attention span, improved working memory, and greater awareness of the structure and form of language.

Other studies have found that bilingualism might delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Ellen Bialystok is a psychology professor who’s studied the effects of bilingualism on cognitive processes. Bialystok cites wide research that shows bilingual children outperform monolingual children on attention and reaction tasks, and furthered that research by studying the onset of dementia.

Her research showed “a significant delay in the onset of symptoms of dementia, particularly Alzheimer’s disease, for people who have been lifelong bilinguals.” Those results held even when monolingual people had significantly higher levels of education compared to bilingual people.

Beyond the cognitive benefits, recent studies suggest that bilingualism can also produce economic benefits through employment, promotions and income. Fluent bilingualism is associated with a lower risk of dropping out of high school and a higher chance of finding a job of greater status and higher annual salary.

Today, Alejandra is fully bilingual, which she considers a great strength, but she doesn’t forget that she was a student who arrived in the U.S. without English. She recognizes that she was part of an educational system that separated her from her native language.

Spanish is the language spoken in the homes of 3.9 million students learning English in public schools, representing 75.7% of all English-learner students and 7.9% of all public school students, according to 2019 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

In the fall of 2019, about 5.1 million English-learning students accounted for 10.4% of all U.S. public school students. That’s up from the fall of 2010 with 9.2%, or 4.5 million, English-learning students.

Alejandra experienced discrimination for her native language, which is why when she became a teacher in Arizona, she fought for students in the English immersion system in her classes.

When she couldn’t take it anymore, she asked herself: “When am I going to put into practice what I studied?”

She had been preparing her whole life to be a bilingual teacher.

When she finally left Arizona to start over as a teacher in Colorado, she earned the opportunity to lead a bilingual program. Alejandra knows that thanks to her life experience, she has the knowledge that a bilingual teacher needs to establish bonds with students arriving from other countries.

When she pursued her degree in bilingual education in Arizona, none of her professors spoke Spanish.

“My professors were phenomenal, but I did have criticism. I told them that they weren’t bilingual, that I would like them to add bilingual teachers and researchers who understood the culture and the language,” she says.

When she learned of the new ASU program in multilingual education, designed by bilingual teachers with Latino roots, she felt enormous relief.

“Knowing this fills me with hope. I became detached from Arizona, and now it gives me joy to see programs implemented that are going to benefit not only Latinos, but all students,” she says.

Small steps for great change

When asked if the Multilingual Elementary Education program could be a solution to this longstanding struggle for teacher retention and bilingual education in Arizona, Claudia was quick to answer.

“Of course.”

“We are preparing them to have an understanding of identity. So that children in the classroom identify with them and can develop better academically,” she says.

Claudia knows the new ASU program is only a start to fixing a complex problem.

“One of the major limitations is that students go to schools and are disappointed to see teachers being oppressed. Salaries are low. It’s a lot of work,” she says. “As bilingual people, they have other options. They are only in the classroom because it’s their calling.”

A teacher’s salary in Arizona is cited among the lowest in the country, according to the report The Best-Paying Cities for Teachers

The state ranked 50th as far as annual salary for teachers before the start of the pandemic, at about $47,606.

The lack of fair compensation and inadequate education funding for schools compelled teachers in Arizona to join the “Red for Ed” movement and strike during the 2017-18 school year. Under pressure from teachers, former Gov. Doug Ducey backed a 20% salary increase.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the lack of teachers. Arizona schools are still struggling to find coverage for teachers who are absent or who’ve fled the state for better paying jobs. School districts are forced to hire substitute teachers or staff without credentials to teach.

“The conditions that public schools in the state are subject to, only contribute to the lack of teachers. No one wants to go through four years of college to go through all that trouble,” Claudia says.

She says she had to go against the current in an education system that for decades has excluded students of color and historically marginalized students from educational privileges, but she’s confident that with small steps, great change is possible.

“For years in Arizona, instead of being seen as empowerment, it was seen as ‘let’s help these poor ignoramuses learn English so things aren’t so rough for them,’” Claudia says.

It’s time to change that narrative.

“We’re seeing increased interest in dual education. Foreign languages were brought together for support, guided by the idea that the children can learn from one another and that they can all be bilingual,” she says.

Spanish is power, she says.

“The idea is to preserve your language, to keep development, at the same time that you learn a new language in the classroom …

… Being multilingual is a strength.”

Translation by Nathalie Alonso

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Beatriz Limón es una periodista independiente que fue corresponsal en Arizona y Nuevo México de la Agencia Internacional de Noticias EFE. Licenciada en Ciencias de la Comunicación, fotógrafa profesional...