McHenry County schools increasingly look to international teachers to solve bilingual staffing shortages

The questions started simple and a little tentative when the fifth-grade dual language class at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake connected virtually last week with a group of students in Valencia, Spain.

They asked each other questions like "what kind of transportation is in your city?" and "what is your favorite video game?" in English and Spanish.

The students had gotten to know each other via recorded videos, but the live Google Meet session was the first time they got to talk in real-time.

The partnership is the result of teacher Victoria Garcia Blanco's presence at the Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 building.

A native of Valencia, Garcia Blanco is in the U.S. through the state's international teacher program, which in recent years has become a key solution to what district administrators in McHenry County say is an increasingly challengingly and competitive climate for staffing and hiring, especially for bilingual staff.

As of 2021, 31 Illinois host districts use the program, including five in McHenry County. Overall the program has increased by over 70% over the past year, Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Jaclyn Matthews said.

Finding teachers locally who are either bilingual or certified in bilingual education is a challenge, said Keely Krueger, Woodstock School District 200's assistant superintendent for early childhood and elementary education.

"Getting that (certification) isn't the easiest thing," Krueger said. "It takes a lot of preparation and schooling. Every district in the region is growing, so we are all now competing for the same pool of candidates. That's why all of us are utilizing this visiting teachers program to meet that need."

Cary School District 26 was one of the 13 districts statewide that were new to the program as of this year, as bilingual teachers have been one of the most challenging positions to fill, Superintendent Brian Coleman said.

School board members there expressed concern about the future of their English Learner program after the program coordinator announced she was leaving after the 2021-22 school year. The district has since hired Lauren Ozimek to take over in that position.

"We continue to use all of our resources to find qualified individuals for these positions, but every district is doing the same," Coleman said.

Even districts that aren't utilizing the state's visiting teacher program have to be creative in finding staff, said Johanna Poncio Jordan, Huntley School District 158's director of multilingual services.

Huntley started its dual-language program four years ago, when the district reached the level of students where a state mandate for the programming kicks in, Poncio Jordan said.

Poncio Jordan, who is from Guatemala and was a bilingual teacher, said her experience played a major role in being able to find and hire new teachers for the program.

"There's a lot of footwork that goes into recruiting and retention," Poncio Jordan said. "But I know what programs need. I'm able to get references. I know this Spanish-speaking teacher, or they've heard great things about our program, maybe on social media. We try to be a destination district in terms of our level of support for staff."

One benefit of the state's visiting teacher program is that the candidates are already certified to teach the specific languages and the program is paid for by the Spanish government, so there's no cost to the district, said Greg Buchanan, Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47's associate superintendent of human resources.

District 47 has recruited nearly 30 bilingual teachers through the state program and has 51 bilingual and dual language teachers currently on staff throughout the district, Buchanan said.

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