Area schools look to Spain for bilingual teachers

In a perfect world, Keely Krueger, Woodstock District 200's director of language and culture, would hire strictly from a pool of local candidates.

But in a dual language program that requires bilingual teachers not just for Spanish class but for all subjects, Krueger struggles to find enough candidates to fill all positions. So, since 2000, the district has recruited teachers from Spain through an exchange program run by the Illinois State Board of Education.

It's a program that takes on a heightened importance in years such as this one when, Krueger said, area applicants are particularly thin.

"To be honest with you, I really struggled this year to find teachers locally," she said. "Those positions that I can't find locally, that's when I try to find someone from Spain."

The district has most frequently used the program to fill bilingual positions that require rare skill sets – notably, special education and speech pathology teachers. District 200 currently has about eight teachers from Spain, and is looking to add an additional three or four during this year's recruitment efforts.

The state board of education pairs with the Ministry of Education and Culture of Spain to set school districts up with candidates.

Depending on negotiations, the Spanish ministry of education will sometimes pay the travel expenses of district administrators, ISBE Spokeswoman Mary Fergus said. Harvard District 50 Superintendent Lauri Tobias will travel to Spain this week to interview candidates.

Last year, 11 Illinois school districts hired a total of 33 teachers from Spain. Teachers hired in the U.S. are granted three-year visas. Some end up staying longer.

Neus Vilchez, a first-grade teacher at Crosby Elementary School in Harvard, taught for four years in Barcelona before coming to the U.S. to teach under the exchange program.

"I thought it was a great opportunity to know another educational system," she said.

Here, Vilchez teaches science and social studies in Spanish. The English-speaking students in her class indirectly learn Spanish literacy.

"Most of them, they don't speak a lot of Spanish yet, so it's a challenge to make them understand all the stuff they have to learn in Spanish," she said. "But it's a nice challenge."

Vilchez also gets to share her cultural background with her students.

That's a perk that isn't overlooked by districts recruiting Spaniards.

"We can bring that cultural piece to the community," said Carolyn Villarreal, District 50 bilingual program coordinator. "They have that opportunity to learn firsthand from folks who are bringing pretty different ideas and linguistic abilities to our students."

The state board of education also has, in the past, offered opportunities to recruit teachers from Mexico, but that spinoff of the exchange program isn't active at the moment.

Both District 200 and District 50 said they'd be open to seeking teachers from other Spanish-speaking countries in the future.

"They enhance the whole cultural piece of the Spanish program," said Krueger, who noted that District 200 also has teachers from Guatemala, Venezuela and Peru – although they didn't come from the program.

"As native speakers of the language, the framework of the language is a little different," she added. "They kind of bring that framework to us."

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