FAIRLY compensating bilingual teachers for their skills and extra time on the job is one of several hot issues in a fierce contract battle here. Mediation between school officials and the Fremont Unified District Teachers Association ends this month and teachers could strike later in February.
The conflict has broad implications because it reflects the changing demographics in many California suburbs - not just its cities - and the need for school districts to move rapidly to meet the challenge.
``For 200 years we've had the idea that this is a European country with little pockets of minorities,'' says Carmen Melendez, Fremont's Coordinator of Bilingual Education. ``The next generation in California is going to do away with that. We all have to be prepared.''
Once a mostly white working-class suburb 25 miles south of Oakland, Fremont is home to a growing number of ethnic minority and foreign-born students.
Last year minority students made up 35 percent of the district's 27,000 students, and immigrant children speak more than 83 languages. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig says California's suburban schools all face the same situation.
``One out of six youngsters in California doesn't speak English as a primary language,'' Mr. Honig says. ``We've had to revamp curriculum.''
But while the Fremont school district has won national acclaim for its bilingual education, some teachers say the district is moving too slowly to keep up with changing suburban demographics.
When non-English-speaking students show up in her fifth-grade class ``it's sink or swim for the teachers,'' says Fremont teacher Roberta Jenkins. The district does not offer ``any help, any materials,'' she says.
Fremont grew rapidly in the 1950s when General Motors opened an assembly plant here. White workers moved into town buying up relatively inexpensive tract homes. As late as 1970, the district was 88 percent white.
But in the last two decades Fremont has changed, as lower-paying electronics plants from nearby Silicon Valley set up shop. Large numbers of Latinos, as well as Filipinos, Chinese, Afghanis, and Vietnamese moved to town.
``My entire class used to be blonds, most of them with Scandinavian names,'' says Jenkins, a 21-year veteran of the school district. ``Now you see a little UN.''
In 1974 Fremont was one of the first suburban districts to establish a comprehensive bilingual education program, at that time aimed at Spanish speakers. Both federal and state governments have lauded the program and sent Fremont personnel to train teachers in other districts.
Today, in selected schools, the Fremont district offers all-Spanish classes, English-as-a-second-language classes, and ``sheltered English'' classes, where students with no knowledge of English can get special instruction. But not all students with limited English attend these classes because of overcrowding or because the special schools are far from home.
So the district also trains local residents fluent in other languages to be instructional aides. They help teachers communicate with students. But the district provides aides only for three hours per week per classroom.
Teachers say the district provides good bilingual programs in Spanish, but that its other language programs lag. The district ``cut down the aide time,'' says bilingual teacher Frank Montenegro. ``Every year it's gone down.''
Fremont Superintendent Rafael Belluomini says they have advertised for aides fluent in Mandarin and Farsi, but have had no takers recently. It may appear to teachers ``that we aren't trying,'' he says. ``But that's not the case.''
While the major contract disputes revolve around wages and benefits for all teachers, the bilingual teachers have requested a special stipend of $1,500 per year as extra compensation.