Good Bilingual Teachers Hard To Find

Suburban school officials travel overseas to hire quality personnel

The flood of new immigrants moving to the northwest suburbs has many suburban school districts scrambling to hire bilingual teachers from a shrinking pool of qualified applicants.

“It is a challenge finding good-quality personnel to work in a number of different languages,” said Robert Howard, Elk Grove Township Elementary School District 59 superintendent.

That challenge has some districts traveling thousands of miles to Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico to hire teachers.

School district officials from Elgin, Cicero, East Aurora, Rockford and Chicago went to Spain for a week in April to recruit, certify and hire teachers for the 1998-99 school year.

The recruiters screened applicants for education and teaching experience on the spot. They gave qualified applicants a language proficiency exam, certified them and hired them. The program is expected to bring about 50 teachers to the Chicago area in the fall.

“We can’t hire enough bilingual teachers (from the American market) because there is intense competition with school districts from all over the country,” said Robert Gilliam, Elgin School District U-46 assistant superintendent for human resources.

“If I didn’t make the trip, I wouldn’t be able to fill all the positions that I have open for the next school year,” he said.

Elgin U-46 will hire about 25 bilingual teachers for the 1998-99 year. Gilliam hired teachers from the U.S., Mexico, Puerto Rico and Spain.

“We go (to Spain) because it gives us a bigger selection to choose from,” he said.

Clem Mejia, Kane County regional superintendent of schools, agreed. Mejia said that without foreign recruitment most districts would be able to find someone to put in the classroom, “but not necessarily the most qualified people.”

Mejia said the state’s process for certifying bilingual teachers makes it easy to teach bilingual education.

In Illinois, anyone with a bachelor’s degree who can pass a language proficiency exam can get an emergency bilingual teaching certificate good for up to six years.

An additional 18 to 32 hours of course work are required to become fully certified. In 1997, the state issued 179 emergency certificates in about 20 languages.

“It was a good idea in the beginning because the six years gave people time to complete the additional courses. But over time what was supposed to be the exception became the norm,” Mejia said.

The problem, said Gretta Roland, an English-as-a-second-language and bilingual professor at National-Louis University’s College of Education, is that “teachers don’t want to go into the language field because they themselves are not bilingual.” And because bilingual teachers are paid the same as core teachers, there is no economic payoff for the extra time and money it costs to get certified, she said.

“We need to develop more long-term programs that start recruiting at the high school level by encouraging students who are bilingual to go into education programs,” said Elsie Hayman of the Illinois Resource Center in Des Plaines.

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