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UNT-Dallas seeks to fill teacher gap

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Dallas Morning News Editorial

Here's a vexing math problem: The number of Texas students who struggle with English is on the rise while the pool of bilingual teachers to serve them continues to dwindle.

That's why it is encouraging to see the University of North Texas at Dallas' impressive Emerging Teacher Institute put some intellectual muscle -- and millions of dollars -- behind recruiting and growing their own.

Educators hope to hook local students on bilingual teaching early by teaming with Sunset High School's collegiate academy bilingual program. UNT-Dallas then fast-tracks their path to a teaching degree and offers scholarship money to some who transfer from community college.

Smart. And it's none too soon.

One in five -- roughly 1 million -- Texas public school students struggle with English. That number has grown by more than 200,000 students in seven years.

Then consider that Texas has gone from 24,500 bilingual or English as a second language teachers in 2009 to 21,444 last year. That's an alarming drop, from 1 for every 30 students to 1:48.

How is this state supposed to significantly move the needle on achievement if students are having trouble communicating and understanding their teachers?

John Gasko, the UNT-Dallas institute's innovative dean, knows the persistent shortage in Texas mirrors a shortage nationwide. That sets up a fierce competition for qualified bilingual teachers.

The institute has built a $2 million program that uses nonprofits and community groups to talk up the virtues of bilingual teaching with families and teens. The ultimate goal is to train more Texas teachers and keep them close to home.

The Dallas Morning News has been behind this institute since it opened last year. We like that its core mission is to focus on teacher development and personal coping skills to get and keep more good teachers in the profession.

That's particularly important in North Texas, where there are estimates that 35,000 new teachers of all kinds will be needed in the next five years.

What's more, the persistent bilingual teacher shortage comes at the same time that the number of Hispanics enrolled in public and private K-12 programs has significantly increased.

The good news is that a recently released Pew report shows that the U.S. high school dropout rate has hit an all-time low, at 10 percent. And more Hispanic high school graduates than ever are enrolling in college.

It's troubling, though, that Hispanics still have the highest dropout rate of any major ethnicity. And they are also less likely than other groups to obtain a four-year degree.

That's not going to cut it in Texas, where Hispanics make up the fastest-growing population.

It's why UNT-Dallas' timely efforts to grow the bilingual teaching ranks hold such promise. The stakes are too high not to have more teachers who can help these students succeed.