A 5-Year Retrospective on an Innovative Teacher Preparation Program for Latina(os)


University of Southern California


University of Southern California

Reprinted from EDUCATION AND URBAN SOCIETY, Vol. 31 No. I

November 1998 (pp. 73-88)
Copyright 1998 Corwin Press, Inc.

With initial funds from the Ford Foundation, the Center for Multilingual, Multicultural Research at the University of Southern California (USC) founded the Latino Teacher Project (LTP). The primary objective of the project, now in its sixth year, is to increase the number of Latinas(os) in the teaching profession. The project recruits prospective teachers from the ranks of paraeducators and provides them with financial, social, and academic support to enable them to complete the requirements needed to become credentialed bilingual teachers. The project involves a partnership between four universities in the greater Los Angeles area, three neighboring school districts, the county office of education, and the major labor unions representing paraeducators and teachers.

As the project has matured, the partner organizations have succeeded in streamlining the "pathway" to teaching for participating paraeducators. In so doing, the project has transformed the teacher education experience into a seamless induction process that actively involves universities, school districts, schools, and labor unions. We see the induction process in sequential stages. "Early induction" includes the teacher education course work supplemented by a supervised laboratory experience that paraeducators encounter at participating project schools. "Intermediate induction" extends the apprenticeship model, allowing paraeducators to complete their student teaching while receiving assistance from carefully selected master teachers, individual mentors, and university personnel. "Advanced induction" provides the support and assessment that have been lacking for new teachers to both improve instructional performance and retain this population in a work-force very susceptible to burnout. "Post induction" involves an advanced integration into the teaching profession through graduate study, professional staff development support, and leadership development.

This article is a 5-year retrospective on our experiences in planning and carrying out a paraeducator-to-teacher pipeline. We describe how the Latino Teacher Project works, lessons learned to date, and directions for the future. Throughout the initial 5 years, the project focused on the early and intermediate stages of induction. Currently we are developing an advanced induction program for first and second-year bilingual teachers, including LTP graduates, in Los Angeles‹based schools serving language minority students. Teachers who complete the advanced induction program will be encouraged to participate in the post induction phase, which includes advanced graduate work.


Ever-increasing numbers of children from language minority (LM) backgrounds are entering elementary and secondary schools in this country (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1994). California leads the nation in numbers of LM students served through the public schools. In 1996-1997, approximately 1.4 million children enrolled in California schools, or about 25% of the total student population in the state, were identified as limited English proficient (LEP).' Although a multitude of languages were represented within this group, Spanish was the native language for more than 1.1 million, or 85%, of the LEP K-12 student population (California Department of Education, 1996). These figures are even more dramatic in metropolitan Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County, with more than 10 million people, is the most demographically varied metropolitan area in the nation, a region where minorities are the demographic majority. Los Angeles has more Mexicans, Central Americans, Asians, and Middle Easterners than any other metropolitan area. With more than 1.1 million, the African American population remains a sizable minority (Waldinger & Bozorgmehr, 1996).

Los Angeles County has 1,677 schools, 81 public school districts, and 13 community colleges~ More than 90 languages are spoken. The county has more than 1.5 million school children, about 27% of the state total. County schools have 541,042 students classified as limited English-proficient, about 41% of the stare total. Eighty-six percent of the LEP student population is from Spanish language backgrounds. The disparity between the composition of the student population and teacher population is striking. Twenty one percent of all students are White, 55% are Hispanic, 12% are Black, 8% are Asian, 2% ate Filipino, and the remaining 1% includes both Pacific Islanders and American Indians. That is, 78% of the student population in the county is racially/ethnically other than White. By contrast, of the 59,754 teachers employed in the county, 66% are White, 15% are Hispanic, 11% are Black, and 6% are Asian (Los Angeles County Office of Education, 1998).

Despite a long and acrimonious debate about the best way to educate LM students, research shows that this population requires specialized educational services (California Department of Education, 1990; Crawford, 1995; Krashen & Biber, 1988; Ramirez, Yuen, Ramey, & Pasta, 1991; Willig, 1985). According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (1997), however, only 3 in 10 teachers currently teaching LM students nationwide have been prepared to do so, and fewer than 3% of the entire teaching population have degrees in the teaching of English as a second language (ESL) or bilingual education. To ensure that the growing numbers of LM students in this country receive a comprehensible and challenging education, the U.S. teaching force must possess specialized linguistic, cultural, and pedagogical training (Gold, 1992).

Recent attempts by state departments of education and local education agencies to increase the number of teachers prepared to meet the instructional needs of LM students have proven unsuccessful (California Department of Education, 1996; Olsen & Chen 1988), resulting in a critical staffing crisis in schools throughout the nation, especially in California (California Department of Education, 1991a). As of 1996, the California State Department of Education reported needing more than 20,000 bilingual teachers.

One promising strategy for increasing the supply of bilingual teachers is to recruit potential candidates from the pool of Latino paraeducators (Haselkorn & Fideler, 1996). Paraeducators are school employees who typically work under the supervision of a teacher or other professional personnel. They have instructional responsibilities or provide another type of direct service to students. We believe that Latino paraeducators have the potential to become ideal teachers of LM students. Because many of them are from the same ethnic minority communities as their students, they tend to be familiar with the children's cultural experiences. Because many are native speakers of languages other than English, they have personal insight into the experience of learning English as a second language. Furthermore, schools in California employ large numbers of paraeducators whose bilingual skills are typically used to provide primary language instruction to LM students in the state, as shown in Table 1. The total number of paraeducators involved in primary language instruction (28,200) exceeds the estimated 20,000 bilingual teachers needed in California.

Number of Paraeducators Providing Primary Language Instruction
to Language Minority Students in California (1994)
LanguageLM Students (K- 12)Paraprofessionals
All others138,9481,713

Source: California Department of Education, 1994.

Table 1 shows that 24,415 (87%) of the paraeducators were from Spanish language backgrounds. The California Department of Education estimates that 25% of this population might try to complete college and become credentialed teachers (California Department of Education, 1991b). The Fall 1991 Ethnic Survey Report shows that the Los Angeles Unified School District had 22,563 paraeducators, 30,473 teachers, and 637,019 students. Sixty percent of the teachers are White and 13% are Latinos (Los Angeles Unified School District, 1991). By contrast, 48% and 20% of the paraeducators are Latino and White, respectively. Lavadenz (1994) reports that more than 50% of the paraeducators in her Los Angeles‹based study have aspirations to become teachers. Similarly, Genzuk (1995) found compelling evidence for developing the paraeducator pool. His research documented that before becoming paraeducators, 52% of surveyed respondents expressed an interest in teaching. After 5 years of working as a paraeducator, 75% planned to become teachers.


The LTP attempts to facilitate cooperation and collaboration among various agencies to remedy the bilingual Latina(o) teacher shortage primarily in Los Angeles. In preparing the participants to become teachers, the project makes extensive use of the concept of "assisted performance." This refers to what a participant can do with the support of more capable others. Vygotsky (1962) calls this the "zone of proximal development." This "zone" is the distance between the student's individual capacity and the capacity to perform with assistance, especially through problem solving under expert guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Gallimore & Tharp, 1990; Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). In the Latino Teacher Project, paraeducators work in their zone of proximal development, and supervising teachers and more capable paraeducators guide them and provide feedback that expands their professional abilities. Not only do they learn through that assistance, but they also strengthen their commitment to becoming teachers. This, in turn, strengthens their resolve to complete the program of study needed to reach their professional goal (Genzuk, 1995).

Below we describe the project further. We describe the consortium structure, the procedures used to identify and recruit project schools, the project participants, the required course work, and the support components built into the program to help participants overcome the barriers they face in route to becoming teachers.


With funding from the Ford Foundation, USC took the lead in creating a consortium of institutions in Los Angles County to address the dire need for bilingual teachers. USC identified other agencies that played a major role in the identification, recruitment, and placement of promising bilingual teachers and invited them to join the effort. This process led to the formation of a consortium whose membership included the following organizations: Los Angeles City and County School Employees Union, Local 99 (Service Employees International Union AFL-CIO, CLC) representing the paraeducators; United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), representing teachers; the Los Angeles County office of Education; the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Little Lake City School District; Lennox School District; and the Schools of Education from the University of Southern California, California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), and Loyola Marymount University.

Development stages of the project will be chronicled as phases representing given periods of elapsed time and funding cycles. Phase I of the LTP lasted about 14 months. Consortium members collaborated to build the project's infrastructure. Each consortium partner agreed to take the lead on specific tasks. The following examples represent the range of tasks undertaken by consortium partners. The Los Angeles County office of Education assumed responsibility for providing training for paraeducators and their school site teachers focusing on how they could work together as instructional teams. The training occurred over a 3-day period. The paraeducator union assisted in identifying schools with a reputation for promoting their paraeducators into teaching, provided training for state-required teacher admissions and certification tests such as the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CBEST) and the Multiple Subjects Achievement Test (MSAT), and worked with one school district to mediate the relationship between the LTP and the district's career ladder program. The 4-year universities, with funds channeled through the LTP, designated a faculty member as the LTP adviser. This person provided additional academic and social counseling and advisement to participants, met regularly with 2-year community college students to streamline the transition to the 4-year university, and assisted with on-site preparation for state-mandated examinations and tutorials for university course work.

Much of the work to date, however, has required cooperation among all consortium partners. To achieve the goals of the project, partners agreed to meet as a committee of the whole at least once a month to review specific work plans, develop strategies for implementation, and discuss progress made.

In Phase II, which represents the period occurring approximately 15 months into the project, the central objectives were to expand the program both within existing schools and to new schools, and begin capacity building. This involves the process by which consortium partners collaborate to continue the LTP when initial Ford funds have ended.

Phase Ill represents the period approximately 3 years into the project. Activities in this phase focused on further project expansion, project refinement, and institutionalization. Policy initiatives addressing teacher education, teacher recruitment, and faculty retention were also major areas of focus in this phase. An example of this type of work is personified by the LTP principal investigator who was a major contributor to the California Department of Education Task Force on Recruiting Teachers. This effort led to the inclusion of paraeducator-to-teacher programs as a primary recommendation in the final task force report. California now has a career ladder initiative aimed at providing school districts with funds to develop career ladder programs for their paraeducators to become teachers. This is an example of how the goal of the LTP has informed teacher education policies in the state.

Efforts to research and document the Latino Teacher Project have been ongoing. Two dissertations focusing on paraeducators, including LTP paraeducators, were completed by USC graduate students (see Genzuk, 1995; Lavadenz, 1994). Another USC dissertation focusing on the LTP and another Ford Foundation‹funded paraeducator-to-teacher project on the Navajo reservation was conducted as well (Beckett, 1996). Current research focuses on paraeducators' funds of knowledge. Ethnographic observations focus on the paraeducators' social and community histories and the process by which paraeducators incorporate these into their social and instructional relations with students. The study is being conducted in collaboration with the Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence (CREDE) at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Building on this knowledge base and with financial support from the Bank of America Foundation, a beginning bilingual teacher induction program will be implemented for first and second-year teachers, including LTP graduates. The induction program will also compare the progress of new teachers with and without previous paraeducator experience.


The USC Latino Teacher Project first selects for participation individual schools from the three metropolitan school districts involved in the consortium - LAUSD, Little Lake City School District, and Lenox School District. Because selected schools play a pivotal role in the determination of project goals and their implementation, their selection is taken seriously. Once the schools have been selected, the LTP recruits bilingual paraeducators from these sites. A review of the salient characteristics of the participating schools gives insight into the attention given to their selection:

  • A history of providing a supportive, nurturing environment for paraeducators

  • A critical mass of bilingual Latina(o) paraeducators wishing to become teachers

  • A preponderance of experienced, credentialed bilingual education teachers willing to work with the paraeducators

  • A sufficient number of bilingual teachers willing to serve as faculty mentors for the project paraeducators

  • Scheduling flexibility for paraeducators so that they can attend staff development activities, project-sponsored seminars and workshops, and conferences

  • Scheduling flexibility for paraeducators who need to prepare for college related work, for example, exams and class assignments

  • Willingness to allow paraeducators to retain paid paraprofessional positions while student teaching

  • Administrative commitment to project goals and implementation


Selected schools identify, assess, and nominate bilingual Latina(o) paraeducators to join the project. The project admits bilingual Latina(o) paraeducators in their sophomore, junior, senior, or post baccalaureate years of teacher preparation. To maintain eligibility in the Project and meet state certification requirements, the participants must maintain a 2.75 grade point average (GPA) on a 4-point scale and show evidence of making steady progress toward program completion.

Several factors weigh in the selection of candidates, including recommendations from principals and others in the schools where paraeducators are employed, strong academic records, and availability of suitable mentor teachers at their school sires. Only applicants already fluent bilingually and committed to becoming bilingual teachers are recruited. Every effort is made to select as many qualified participants as possible within funding limits; at least three applicants are selected from each school site to maintain a critical and supportive mass of students.

Since fall 1997, the project has served over 180 paraeducators through the four teacher education programs involved in the consortium. This number does not include a special summer program for an additional 32 paraeducators who were provided assistance so they could begin teaching as regular full-time faculty members in the subsequent fall semester.

Of those served to date, over two thirds were female and slightly more than one fourth of the total were married, with the majority reported having children of their own. Nearly all participants were of Latino heritage, although several were of African American background.

Thirty new paraeducators will be admitted in the 1998 spring semester, and one hundred new paraeducators should be admitted by the end of the 1998 fall semester.


Programs for the bilingual teaching credential vary slightly among the four participating universities, but all include specific requirements established by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC). Specifically, the CCTC requires that all students complete a baccalaureate or higher degree from an accredited university and a multiple-subject professional teacher preparation program, including successful student teaching. All teacher candidates, including bilingual education teacher candidates, must pass the California Basic Skills Education Test (CBEST) before student teaching, graduate in the top 50% of their class, and complete courses on the provisions and principles of the U.S. Constitution and methods of teaching reading. Candidates must further complete a fifth year of study consisting of 30 units beyond the bachelor's degree and pass a state approved Spanish (or other non-English-language) proficiency exam before student teaching if they are seeking a bilingual education credential. Those candidates who do not complete an approved multiple-subject undergraduate major, such as general studies, must also pass the California Multiple Assessment for Teachers (MSAT), which is intended to assess their knowledge of several subjects commonly taught in elementary school (California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 1998).

The required course work in California credentialing is demanding and makes no special allowances for paraeducators. The consortium universities, however, have made important modifications in their infrastructure to increase LTP paraeducators' capacity to access the teacher education curriculum. Most universities in the project, for example, allow participants to retain their positions as paraeducators while completing student teaching. Some LTP schools, on their part, have agreed to free the paraeducators from their 3 hours per day commitment as assistants so they can use this time to fulfill their student teaching responsibilities.


In this section, we describe components of support that streamline the paraeducator-to classroom teacher pipeline. These financial assistance, academic and social, and professional development support components were designed to help participants overcome the key obstacles that paraeducators often face in completing their undergraduate degrees and obtaining teaching credentials.


Students of low socioeconomic status - which includes the majority of paraeducators- depend greatly (if not entirely) on financial aid to pursue degrees in higher education (Nicklos & Brown, 1989). Because paraeducators are not particularly well paid, they are generally afraid of incurring debts. This is a major obstacle to pursuing a postsecondary degree. To address this concern, the LTP provides each paraeducaor with a $1500 scholarship paid biannually providing they maintain normal progress toward degree completion (a 2.75 GPA and 20 semester units annually, including summer school).2 Participants may use these scholarships to offset the cost of child care, transportation, fees, or other essentials while they attend class or participate in other project-related activities. Consortium partners constantly seek financial sponsorship for participants from individuals, professional organizations, corporations, and the private sector, as well as financial assistance made available by alumni and other support groups at participating institutions. For those paraeducators who attend school on a full-time basis (a minimum of 30 to 32 semester units a year), the LTP works with the financial assistance office to secure a range of scholarships, grants, and federal loans so that even enrollment in a private university is affordable.


Latina(o) paraeducators attempting to become teachers run into more academic difficulties than most other teacher education candidates. Research has documented, for example, that Latina(o) candidates have a lower-than-average pass rate on admissions tests for teacher education (Gillis, 1991), teacher competency tests (Valencia & Aburto, 1991), and teacher certification exams (Gillis, 1991). Because paraeducators are typically the first generation in their families to attend college, Latina(o) paraeducators often feel insecure in higher education settings and frequently experience a sense of isolation, particularly when they attend predominantly White colleges and universities (Genzuk, 1995). The demands of a full-time job and part-time studies tend to create family tensions for many of the females in the Latino Teacher Project. To address these academic and social concerns, the project has developed a creative network of support that includes a cohort structure, on-site faculty mentors, adjunct classes, project socials, and school site presentations and meetings, professional development support, and support for conference participation, described below.

Cohorts of paraeducators. Cohorts are formed for building cooperative, interactive support systems to assist participants. Cohorts might include participants who have completed a similar number of units and are enrolled in the same teacher education program at the same college or university, participants who live in the same geographic area, and those who work as paraeducators in the same or neighboring schools. These groups or cohorts meet regularly at local school sites or other mutually agreed-upon locations for class and other activities. Such regular interactions promote among participants a sense of group membership and support that has enabled many to overcome difficulties along their path to becoming teachers. Research shows that the cohort structure promotes academic achievement, higher self-esteem, motivation to learn, and the development of social and collaborative skills (Calderón 1991; Johnson, Johnson, & Holubec 1988; Slavin 1983).

On-site faculty mentors. Mentors at the home schools are assigned to each participant for purposes of assuring that routine and non-routine problems they encounter can be addressed. Problems may include instructional or social difficulties the paraeducators experience within their own classrooms or academic or program-related challenges at the college or university. Faculty mentors function as program catalysts, cheerleaders, staff developers, and problem solvers. Our observations suggest that the essential elements in quality mentor-paraeducator relationships are the personal skills and specialized preparation that mentors bring to that association. The role of the mentor evolves as the paraeducator's needs change. They are well read and stay current on educational issues and innovative instructional strategies as well as generous with their time and patience.

Because mentors serve a critical role in the project, they are carefully selected. To qualify for this position, individuals must be recommended by experienced educators from the participating schools, hold a valid regular California teaching credential, and show evidence of instructional leadership. They must also be skilled in teaching methodologies that promote learning for LM students, classroom management, and establishing communications with colleagues.

Adjunct class sessions. These class sessions are provided by institutions of higher education participating in the LTP to those paraeducators who need academic assistance. By design, these sessions combine learning strategies with course content and explore the application of such content to applied teaching. The leaders of the adjunct sessions are learning or content specialists with backgrounds in education.

Participants are assigned university advisers in an ombudsman capacity. They assure that paraeducators take appropriate courses, facilitate enrollment in required courses, provide tutoring as needed, and streamline the university's bureaucratic maze for first-generation students. The university LTP advisers facilitate the transition from community college to the 4-year university. All LTP paraeducators attending community colleges meet regularly with the 4-year LTP adviser to plan their course work at the community college, focus only on courses that transfer to the university, and designate a date when they will leave the community college. The community college students are required to meet the LTP faculty adviser at the 4-year college site. This is deliberately done to increase the community college students' affiliation with the 4-year university.

Project socials. Social events tie the community to higher education. Paraeducators are often the first in their families to attend college, and most are women who carry substantial family responsibilities (Pickett, 1988). We have found that participants who receive support from their families are more apt to complete the program than those who do not. To secure such support, the Latino Teacher Project initiates a variety of social activities that involve participants' families and friends. These social events are intended to diminish the concerns of spouses, children, and other family members and address other social pressures encountered by participants. For example, the father of a paraeducator in the project had repeatedly disapproved of his daughter's decision to become a teacher because he saw reaching as low-status work with limited financial rewards. After attending a project social in which recent graduates were recognized and invited dignitaries explained the need for Latino teachers, the father commented on his new recognition of the importance of the project and pledged his support for his daughter's teaching endeavors.

School site presentations and meetings. The purpose of these activities is to inform classroom teachers and administrators at participating schools of the problems and pressures that their paraeducators encounter while working toward the goal of becoming credentialed teachers. The underlying purpose of these presentations and meetings is to encourage school personnel to develop strategies for supporting project participants.

Professional development support. To supplement the professional preparation that participants receive through their course work, the LTP offers special seminars. Regularly scheduled non-credit seminars are offered to participants, their mentors, and other interested faculty. Seminar topics are selected by consortium members to address educational concerns not traditionally covered in teacher education, including the use of the internet for instructional planning, the paraeducator and classroom teacher as instructional partners, the role of primary language instruction in accessing English for academic purposes, and instructional strategies. Seminars are generally facilitated by the paraeducators' classroom teachers, their on-site faculty mentors, and university personnel. The LTP deliberately encourages joint attendance by the paraeducator and a more experienced educator who can mediate the experience for them. General~, the experienced educator is the paraeducator's classroom teacher, on-site faculty mentor, another classroom teacher or administrator, and in some instances, more experienced paraeducators.

Support for conference participation. We believe that participation in conferences is essential to promote professional development. The LTP sponsors participation of paraeducators and their faculty mentors at major professional conferences on topics such as bilingual education, Spanish literacy development, reading, and math education. Attendance at these conferences is viewed as a critical component in the induction of paraeducators into the teaching profession. For example, they attend workshops and seminars focusing on education policy, instructional methodologies, and the latest research findings. This also provides the opportunity to meet and interact with other professionals in the field, thereby enhancing their professional socialization, a significant factor in staying in college for Latino students (Genzuk, 1995). Consortium members have found this component so valuable that school districts have provided paid release time for such activities. We have also found that team attendance (paraeducators and mentor teachers attending together) is an effective strategy for developing instructional teams and raising the status of paraeducators.


To effectively recruit Latino paraeducators into teacher education and to retain them through graduation and certification, programs must be specifically designed for them. This population brings many resources to the teaching profession, including their personal knowledge of Latino communities, experiences as an LM group member, bilingual skills, and considerable experience working in urban schools. At the same time, Latino paraeducators tend to have particular needs that set them apart from the typical college~ bound student who enters teacher education. Unless teacher education programs develop systems of support to address the identified needs, similar to those in use in the Latino Teacher Project, they are likely not to succeed in moving Latino paraeducators into credentialed bilingual teaching positions.

By changing the way the colleges and universities in the Latino Teacher Project operate, we can provide the sorely needed Latino teachers for understaffed schools. With the involvement of other significant stakeholders that will benefit from the upward mobility and professional preparation of this potential workforce, such as labor unions, school districts, schools within these districts, and the county office of education, we are not only providing Latino teachers but also creating a vision of possibilities for revising teacher education for all candidates. In our evolving model, teacher education is an extended induction process in which schools and other participating agencies are active partners in selecting and preparing future teachers for students.


1.When we use the term limited English proficient (LEP) we mean a student whose English language skills (in any area: reading, writing, speaking, and listening) are insufficient to lead to success in an English-only classroom. When we use the term language minority, we refer to students who come from a background where English is not their language, or where the primary language of the home is not English, or both.

2.Using 20 semester units a year, including summer sessions, promotes degree completion within 6 to 7 years, a period that allows paraeducators to balance the demands of work, family, and education. Prolonging and enriching the period for degree completion has no doubt contributed to a 96% degree-completion rate.


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