NIL HU, a 60-year-old former surveyor from Cambodia, now teaches math, science, and social studies in Khmer to Cambodian second graders here. Thiem Ung worked in education for more than 10 years in Cambodia before fleeing. She now teaches Cambodian language arts, culture, and civilization at an Amherst, Mass., elementary school. Both fled their country without academic documentation. Many immigrants, including doctors and lawyers, come without documentation and have to spend years duplicating their studies to get recertified or licensed. Because the need is great to get teachers in the classroom quickly, a new state program has been developed to cut the red tape.
Potential teachers face a rigorous 75-minute interview designed to assess how much education was completed in Cambodia. If passed by the panel of four authorities on Southeast Asian education, they will receive a certificate validating their educational experience. The program is run by the University of Lowell and the Massachusetts Department of Education.
Forty-three people applied for the program and 25 Cambodians were interviewed recently, including Mr. Hu and Miss Ung. More Cambodians as well as Laotians and Vietnamese will be interviewed in the spring.
``This is a unique program,'' says Juan Rodriguez, associate professor of education and director of bilingual and English as a second language programs at the University of Lowell. ``What we're trying to do is reconstruct the academic credit of refugees. The need for these people who have the proper academic credit is very important for quality education, especially here in the Merrimack Valley.''
With 9,000 students in Massachusetts who speak Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao, and numbers in certain areas growing rapidly, these teachers are in demand.
In the Lowell school district particularly, there has been an explosion of Southeast Asians: from 4.1 percent in 1983 to 20.7 percent in 1988. Many are Khmer-speaking Cambodians. At Hugh J. Molloy Elementary School where Hu teaches, out of 435 students, more than half are Cambodian. One rather bewildered-looking boy had just come from a refugee camp in Thailand the day before.
Mr. Rodriguez established a program for professional development of school personnel three years ago to help schools cope with the influx of immigrants. He says creating a fast track for Southeast Asian teachers is just the beginning.
``We need to prepare school superintendents and principals to develop policies,'' says Rodriguez. ``We need parents to be able to understand the American educational system. We hold workshops in the community to explain what's an open house.''
The certification program will be open to nonteachers. ``If they're ... doing something else we'll evaluate them,'' says Ernest Mazzone, director of the state Office of Teacher Recruitment and Referral. ``They're a potential resource.''
That gives Bella Rosenberg concern. The assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers says that while teachers qualified under a different system can be handled in a number of ways, such as placing them with mentor teachers, she is skeptical of ``the magic-wand approach of creating teachers.''
``I'd be suspicious, particularly if it's fueled by an acute need,'' says Ms. Rosenberg. ``I don't know what you can tell in 75 minutes about teaching abilities.'' New York, Texas, and California have had difficulties with inexperienced people becoming teachers because the need is great. Lowell program graduates will have to go on to fulfill state certification requirements, but without getting a new college degree.
``It's only fair to the teachers,'' says Ann O'Donnell, superintendent of bilingual education for Lowell public schools. ``Without this program, they're taking courses and courses and courses, and it's costing a lot. Some ... may say education is not for them.''