DALLAS — Olivia Mendez can’t help but see herself in her second-grade students, many of whom barely speak English.

The Dallas Morning News (http://bit.ly/2cGBtun ) reports she too struggled with the language when growing up in the Texas Panhandle. She too had to navigate the adult world when she did learn.

“I was always the one translating and telling my parents what the teacher was saying,” she said. “I wanted to be the teacher telling the parent so that the kids don’t have to worry about being that translator. I want to promote success for them.”

But Texas can’t find enough teachers like Mendez to keep up with the need.

The number of limited-English speakers in the state has grown by nearly 50 percent in the last decade with about 1 in 5 students struggling with the language. But in that same time, Texas had a dramatic 20 percent drop in the number of educators working in bilingual and ESL classes.

As of the 2014-15 school year, Texas had only one ESL or bilingual teacher for every 46 students struggling with English, according to the Texas Education Agency.

That means students who greatly need one-on-one attention to catch up to their peers are instead being placed in larger classrooms or missing out on services altogether.

Districts turn to teacher aides, long-term substitutes and even talent from Puerto Rico, Mexico and Spain.

The shortage also means that the bilingual teachers Texas does have must pick up the slack, even outside their classrooms.

Robert Surber, who teaches third-graders down the hall from Mendez at Mesquite’s Shands Elementary, often sits in on parent-teacher conferences or makes calls home to students for other teachers.

Surber, a 20-year veteran who mentors younger teachers, said he’s seen many bilingual educators leave the profession after a short time because of mounting stress, even in the elementary grades where they tend to teach.

“Many people thought with our young population, it was going to be all hugs and rainbows,” Surber said. “But you do have difficult children and difficult parents sometimes. And it can be heartbreaking when you work in a high-poverty area. Some people, they just can’t take it.”

The two teachers are exactly the kind of educators districts desperately need to recruit and keep: dedicated, talented and fluent in many languages. Suber, who earned his master’s degree in Mexico, also speaks Vietnamese.

To stop districts from poaching their best teachers — particularly those in bilingual education — Mesquite launched a new incentive program this year to keep their best teachers in the classroom through additional training opportunities and the chance to earn up to $12,000 more annually.

But bilingual education professionals say that while such efforts go a long way for retention, salary isn’t the biggest hurdle.

It’s getting more native speakers interested in becoming a teacher in the first place, said Ana Coca, president-elect of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education.

She and other advocates say Texas could greatly turn around numbers if policymakers focus on two key areas: teacher aides and certification tests.

Schools have long turned to teacher aides to help fill the gap.

They often have similar backgrounds as the students they are working with as well as strong native language skills. But most don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

Over the years, the state, universities and districts have launched programs aimed at getting more aides certified as teachers.

For example, the state had a tuition-exemption plan for such workers, but money for that was eliminated in 2011 when the Legislature slashed funding for many education programs. Last year, lawmakers approved restoring $1.5 million in such grants for two years.

Coca has seen firsthand what a difference that program made in helping aides. She works for the Fort Worth school district and has taught future teachers at the University of North Texas at Dallas.

“They were usually the strongest ones in my class,” she said. “They had the experience already, so it was very easy for them to develop lesson plans and take control of the class.”

That’s why TABE will push for the state to renew funding this upcoming session.

The group will also seek policies that give aides more credit for their classroom experience, which could put them on track to graduate faster.

About 1 in 5 school paraprofessionals speak a language other than English at home, according to the Washington, D.C.- research group New America. But low wages and other challenges make it difficult for many of them to seek bachelor’s degrees while working full time.

This summer, New America announced it was launching a two-year effort to study policies across the country aimed getting more aides to the front of the classroom.

“These paraprofessionals frequently have the linguistic and cultural competencies their schools need, as well as considerable instructional and educational experience,” according to a briefing from the group.

But even if more aides sought the teacher track, certification tests are tripping many of them up.

Texas sought to strengthen the quality of its force after the federal No Child Left Behind law required all teachers to be “highly qualified.”

In doing so, advocates say, the state made bilingual education one of the hardest certifications to obtain.

Potential teachers must pass a series of tests that include the generalist test teachers in the elementary school grades must take, one on teaching methods and responsibilities, and a bilingual supplement.

Then there is also a complicated test on bilingual proficiency to assess listening, speaking, reading and writing skills.

But advocates say as designed, the tests put too much emphasis on competency in a range of subject matters. While many candidates are able to pass the generalist test covering similar areas in English, doing so in another language can be challenging.

Now the difficulty of the test is deterring many would-be teachers, said Luis Rosado, director of the Center for Bilingual and ESL Education at the University of Texas at Arlington.

For years, Rosado annually had about 50 to 60 students seeking certification through the program. Now it’s about half that, with many struggling to pass the test.

“Even native speakers have a very difficult time passing because it’s moved away from what it should be — a language test — to one that’s centered on content,” Rosado said.

Rosado said the tests should absolutely help identify the best educators. “But that test has really made it more difficult to be a certified bilingual teacher in Texas.”

Lobbying for changes to the certification tests will also be a priority when lawmakers return to Austin in January.

Coca said she and professionals across the state are encouraged by more grow-your-own programs that districts are undertaking to encourage high school students to start thinking about education as a career early. That will eventually help boost the numbers, so changes need to be in place now to get ready for those future teachers, she said.

“We’re not going to give up,” Coca said. “The state and schools do see the value in students being fluent in more than one language. That’s why you see more dual-language programs for all students. But we don’t have enough bilingual teachers for the students who really need it most, so we have to work on that first.”

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Dallas Morning News