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Statewide shortage of bilingual teachers recruits controversy in Fox Valley

Most rapid demographic shift

Percentage Students Students

School District point change 1989-90 2009-10

Lakewood School, Carpentersville D300 84 95% white 11% white

Laurel Hill Elementary School, Hanover Park U46 83 4% Hispanic 87% Hispanic

Ontarioville Elementary School, Hanover Park U46 78 12% Hispanic 90% Hispanic

Meadowdale Elementary School, Carpentersville D300 78 87% white 9% white

Lords Park Elementary School, Elgin U46 75 80% white 5% white

Golfview Elementary School, Carpentersville D300 74 19% Hispanic 91% Hispanic

Coleman Elementary School, Elgin U46 73 86% white 13% white

Highland Elementary School, Elgin U46 71 85% white 14% white

Sheridan Elementary School, Elgin U46 69 18% Hispanic 87% Hispanic

Washington Elementary School, Elgin U46 69 80% white 11% white

Source: The Courier-News analysis of 1989-90 and 2009-10 data, courtesy of WBEZ.

WBEZ Map:Diversity in our schools
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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:01AM

ELGIN — Susana Rodriguez turned through the pages of the book “Mis Amigos — My Friends” with the 27 first-graders in her classroom at Huff Elementary School, then solicited suggestions from the students.

She wrote on the board: “Me gusta …” She asked what they like to do with their friends.

Me gusta montar bicicletas con mis amigos,” said one tiny girl with a big pink ribbon pulling back her dark curls. I like riding bikes with my friends.

Me gusta comer helado con mis amigos.” I like eating ice cream with my friends.

Me gusta hacer la tarea con mis amigos.” I like doing homework with my friends.

Rodriguez loves her work and her students at Huff, she said, but this is not where she imagined she would be 12 years ago. Back then, she didn’t even know Elgin was a place, she said.

The teacher, who grew up in Spain, had applied to the Teacher Exchange Visitor Program between her home country and the state of Illinois. She thought she’d come to the United States for a year to get experience teaching overseas and practice her English.

“I came here for a year, and then I don’t know what happened,” she said.

What happened was Rodriguez was given the opportunity through Elgin School District U46 to earn her bilingual endorsement and master’s degree, then to become National Board Certified. She discovered how much she enjoyed mentoring other teachers and became part of the district’s Teacher Mentor Program.

High demand

Meantime, the demand for certified bilingual teachers such as Rodriguez has grown in the Elgin area.

“The population is growing. Spanish-speaking students are coming in,” said Eberto Mora, director of human resources in Carpentersville-based Community Unit School District 300.

In fact, the number of Hispanic students has increased from 32.7 percent in the 2002-03 school year to 50.3 percent this year in Elgin School District U46, according to the district and Illinois Interactive Report Card data.

That’s not just significant, according to Wilma Valero, director of English Language Learner services in U46, the state’s second-largest district. It also is surprising, even to Valero — especially to see a 4 percent jump between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, she said. Normal, she said, would be a 1 or 2 percent increase.

Of course, not every Hispanic student is an English Language Learner, just as not every Elgin resident who can trace his or her ancestry to Germany speaks German as a first language, Valero said. Many are fourth- or fifth-generation Elgin citizens, she said.

But the number of ELL students in U46 also has increased in that time, according to the director. Ten years ago, there were about 5,955 ELL students in the Elgin district, she said. This school year, those numbers have grown 31 percent to about 7,800 students in the program, she said.

U46 spent almost $27.8 million on its ELL programming last school year, according to Director of Financial Operations Dale Burnidge. Of that, about $4.4 million was covered by state or federal funds.

That outside funding comes with a set of requirements from the federal government, including having ELL programs and bilingual teachers certified to teach them.

And that comes as the Illinois State Board of Education has noted a shortage in teachers certified to teach bilingual education every school year for at least a decade straight.

“All the districts in the area — we are really competing for the same pool of teachers,” Mora said. “It does become difficult at time to have every position filled with a qualified person.”

Recruiting teachers

By the first day of school this year, every one of U46’s 387 ELL teaching positions was filled, according to Amelia Gavina, a recruiting officer in the Elgin district’s human resources department. That’s an increase from 276 teachers in 2002, Valero said.

And that’s no small feat.

Last month, next-door neighbor District 300 still had one position open for an English as a Second Language teacher and one for a bilingual teacher, both at the elementary level. It now has 59 teachers in the whole ELL program, a jump from 44 teachers in 2002-03, according to Raul Menchaca, the ELL services coordinator in District 300.

The number of students in the Carpentersville-area school district also has grown in the past decade from 1,400 to 2,386, not including its bilingual students who also receive special education services, Menchaca said. Last year, it spent about $5.9 million on its ELL programming. Of that, $1.3 million came from state and federal grants, he said.

“It’s a market-driven, difficult position to fill,” Gavina said.

U46 offers financial assistance to its teachers interested in completing a certificate program to get an ESL or bilingual endorsement through grants and partnerships with Judson University in Elgin, Northern Illinois University and Aurora University, according to Valero. And it pairs its new teachers with a teacher mentor for two years. The idea is if a teacher feels supported by the district, he or she will stay in the district, she said.

Director of Grant Management and Programs Luz Baez said District 300 also provides “a lot of professional development.” But much of the funding that once was available for those kinds of partnerships “has kind of dried up,” she said.

Additionally, Baez said , “One of the challenges is we’re surrounded by schools that pay a lot more money than we do. Many of the districts around us recruited away a lot of our better teachers.”

The average teacher salary last year in District 300 was $63,172, according to Illinois Interactive Report Card data. Meantime, teachers in U46 and statewide, on average, did make more: $72,198 and $64,978, respectively.

In U46, Valero even makes up welcome bags for all her new ELL teachers each year, filled with Spanish language books and other gifts, she said.

“That is the extra mile we go to for our teachers because they deserve that,” she said.

Trip critics

The Elgin school district has, in the past, gone many more miles to bring qualified ELL teachers to its schools. U46, along with District 300 and District 131 in Aurora, all have taken part in the Teacher Exchange Visitor Program.

That partnership — between ISBE and both the Ministry of Education and Culture of Spain and the Office of the Secretary of Public Education of Mexico — brings teachers from those countries to teach bilingual education in Illinois districts for three years, according to ISBE. Spain has participated in the program since 1999, and Mexico since 2008.

District officials travel to those countries, all expenses paid by the consulates of the Spanish-speaking countries, where they interview and hire teachers who already have been identified as “highly qualified and English language-proficient,” Valero said.

Currently, about 20 teachers in the ELL program came to the Elgin district from Spain through the Teacher Exchange Visitor Program, according to the director. This past year, it was able to hire all its teachers from the U.S. and now is recruiting from the states, she said.

But Annette Johnson, president of the school board in District 131, said those consulates don’t always cover every expense of the recruiting trips.

“There were still some out-of-pocket costs,” Johnson said. “Meals, travel — technically they’re paid for with (federal) Title III money, but it’s still money. You could always use that for something else.”

And the East Aurora district’s trips to Spain, Puerto Rico and, on occasion, Mexico, have caused some controversy in the district, which prides itself on growing its own educators from within the community. It did not recruit any teachers from overseas this year, Johnson added.

Baez described the program as a “Band-Aid,” something District 300 also stopped about three years ago.

“We had some success. Unfortunately people have a tendency to come a year or two, miss their country and then go back,” she said.

But that program has been a “success story” for U46, and the visiting teachers are “assets to our department,” according to Valero. Most have stayed beyond the three years they were required, such as Rodriguez, she said.

Rodriguez says she’s stayed because she fell in love with her work and with her students. First-graders make so much progress in that one year, she said, it keeps her motivated.

“It was a journey, like different events that kept me here. I thought I’d stay here until I had my master’s (degree). I’ll stay here until I do this,” she said.

“And I’m still here.”

Staff writer Jenette Sturges
contributed to this report.

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