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San Diego sits at a binational crossroads, perfectly positioned to provide bilingual job candidates in a variety of fields. One study called Southern California one of the most linguistically diverse areas of its size in the country.
The potential supply is there. At least one in five students in San Diego County schools speaks a language other than English. So is demand for bilingual employees. Research and local hiring experts both say that other skills being equal, employers overwhelmingly prefer to hire bilingual candidates over candidates who speak only English.
Lourdes Sandoval, news director for Entravision, said bilingual skills are crucial to mining stories in a diverse community so close to the international border. Yet, she still needs to look outside the area to find bilingual journalists.
“It’s not easy,” said Sandoval. “I spend months trying to find (bilingual) people and sometimes I have to hire international candidates.”
Employers, language experts and teachers point to one root cause: a public education system that restricted bilingual education for the past 18 years.
In 1998, voters passed Proposition 227, a ballot measure that restricted bilingual education in California and relegated the vast majority of students to English-only schools. Last November, voters passed Proposition 58, which lifted those restrictions and made it easier for school districts to open bilingual programs.
Experts like Cristina Alfaro, chair for the Department of Dual Language and English Learner Education at SDSU, believe Proposition 58 will lead to long-term improvements for English-learners. In the meantime, however, the state must grapple with the outcomes of a public education system that hasn’t prioritized bilingual education.
“Right now, these students are still products of Prop. 227,” Alfaro said.
The central challenge of educating English-learners is how to teach language and academic content, like math and science, at the same time. Focus solely on English, and students fall behind their peers in other academic areas. Focus solely on the academic content, and students won’t have the language to process the material.
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley millionaire who funded and drove 1998’s Prop. 227 campaign, argues the English-only model is the most effective way to teach students language.
But recent research, including a 2014 study, has shown students who attend bilingual programs generally catch up to their peers in English-only programs by the time they leave fifth grade and often go on to outperform their counterparts.
Bilingual programs benefit both English-learners and native English-speakers. Last year, about 85 percent of the students who attended Sherman Elementary, a dual-language school in Sherman Heights, could read, write and speak in two languages by the time they left fifth grade.
But even if students leave elementary school literate in two languages, progress will stall if they don’t have access to strong bilingual programs in middle and high school, said Alfaro. Currently, only two school districts in the county offer students a strong bilingual pathway from grade school to high school.
Growing bilingual pathways could also help English-learners graduate and get ready for college. In 2015, about 17 percent of California’s English-learners dropped out of school – a higher dropout rate than students with disabilities.
Many former English-learners say they felt a need to leave behind their native language in order to find success in school. That’s resulted in what Alfaro calls “language shame”: Spanish might be a student’s first language, but because they don’t use it in school, they’re less likely to have the confidence or the skills to speak, read or write it at a professional level later in life.
Bey-Ling Sha, director of SDSU’s journalism school, has seen language shame first-hand.
In 2014, she created a bilingual journalism course to help prepare students to cover increasingly diverse communities. News organizations like Entravision, Azteca America and inewsource quickly expressed interest in working with students after they left the class.
The only problem – only six students enrolled.
When Sha asked students why they didn’t come, a pattern emerged: Some students, who grew up speaking Spanish at home and English at school, could speak the language but couldn’t read or write it. Others could understand Spanish, but felt insecure speaking it.
Alfaro sees the same pattern in the teaching candidates she works with.
“At the middle and high school levels, we don’t have enough bilingual teachers that have a high-level, academic language they can pass onto students. Not enough emphasis has been placed on building that high-caliber Spanish. We’re all products of the system that has never valued bilingual education,” Alfaro said.
And as California school districts face a looming teacher shortage, the need for bilingual teachers is even more acute.
Proposition 58 will make it easier to open bilingual programs, which Alfaro believes will lead to improved outcomes for English-learners in the long run. In the meantime, however, Alfaro said universities will have to step up to help students professionalize their language skills – similar to the bilingual journalism initiative at SDSU.
And the ability to speak, read and write in multiple languages will only make students more marketable to employers.
Maxine Suka, who helps train and place job candidates as director of workforce operations at San Diego Metro Career Centers, said employers overwhelming prefer to hire bilingual candidates even when the job requirements don’t specifically call for it.
“San Diego is a melting pot,” said Suka. “And what we see with employers is that they prefer bilingual candidates because they can relate to the clients and customers they’re serving. And it’s needed more now than ever.”
Jobs data from the last 12 months show that employers in California search for bilingual job candidates more often than any other state – twice as often as Texas, the next closest state.
While city leaders like Mayor Kevin Faulconer promote the benefits of a binational economy, rarely is the importance of actually speaking Spanish and the opportunities it offers students discussed.
It’s the economic argument that Alfaro said resonates most with parents.
For some Latino families, there’s still a stigma that bilingual education will hurt their children’s ability to learn English. But when Alfaro tells parents that bilingual programs are popular in middle- and upper-class communities, the skepticism drops away.
“They think: ‘Wait a minute, what am I missing?’ Then they get excited. They realize it would also be good for their culture and their language. They realize it’s a strength,” Alfaro said in January.
The message is landing. Minerva Espejo, a native Spanish-speaker, is one of them. As a student at Hoover High, Espejo experienced firsthand how schools struggle to prepare English-learners for college or careers.
That’s why she sought bilingual options for her children. They landed at Sherman Elementary, and she’s glad.
“I want my children to be able to do business with people who talk different languages and to understand how to communicate properly in a business setting,” Espejo said. “I want them to express their thoughts and ideas freely without a language barrier.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Bey-Ling Sha’s title and the year in which she started a bilingual journalism class.