Schools still awaiting bilingual teachers

Mexico hires late in arriving

In Aurora, a bilingual classroom of 4th and 5th graders has been taught so far this school year by an assistant principal and a series of substitutes.

In Elgin, a retired teacher who doesn’t speak fluent Spanish has taken the helm of a 2nd-grade bilingual class, relying on a Spanish-speaking aide to help her over the language hurdles. In Waukegan, six bilingual classrooms are in the hands of substitute teachers.

By now, most teachers have settled into a comfortable routine with their students, but about 30 bilingual classrooms across the suburbs have been disrupted by the same unexpected glitch: the late or uncertain arrival of teachers recruited from Mexico.

For the last four years, an increasing number of suburban districts with significant Spanish-speaking populations have hired teachers from foreign countries or Puerto Rico because of a dire shortage of trained bilingual instructors. And although such recruiting is expensive and time-consuming, administrators say they’ve never before faced the kind of headaches that stranded nearly all their hires in Mexico when the first school bells rang last week.

“This is the worst it’s ever been. We’ve never had this many teachers arriving so late,” said Ori Guerra, assistant director of English as a second language/bilingual education for Elgin-based Unit District 46, which has 215 bilingual teachers and 5,800 limited-English students.

Of the 13 teachers hired from Mexico, only two arrived before the start of school on Aug. 27. Most are expected to trickle in over the month, but at least four are still awaiting work visas.

“The worst that typically happens is that one or two teachers don’t come, or a few miss a day or two,” Guerra said. “We have some proactive principals, and we’re getting a lot of help from teachers in those buildings with lesson plans. So we’re trying to keep our patience and our hopes high.”

It doesn’t appear to be any one factor that left these districts in the lurch, but rather a combination of paperwork problems, bureaucratic delays and immigration hurdles on both sides of the border.

The irony is at least three districts–Elgin, East Aurora Unit District 131 and Valley View Unit District 365 in Romeoville–started the hiring process earlier than ever this year, recruiting in Mexico City last November.

“It’s hard to point the finger in any one place,” said John Struck, director of personnel for East Aurora schools. “There’s a lot of different desks [these applications] must pass through. And they probably sat on some desks too long. In some ways, we got going so early that we probably got too secure about the time we had left.”

District scrambles

On opening day in East Aurora, 10 bilingual classrooms were without a permanent teacher. The district scrambled with temporary solutions–merging some bilingual classrooms, dividing students among a number of teachers, hiring bilingual substitutes, pairing bilingual aides with English-only teachers, and reassigning bilingual specialists such as speech therapists and reading resource teachers to classrooms.

Cathy Dunphy, principal of Illinois Park Elementary in Elgin, said the staff has pitched in to make the best of an awkward situation. She hired two experienced subs until the permanent teacher arrives.

“Do I wish it hadn’t happened? Sure,” Dunphy said. “Everyone’s contributing to make this work. We wrote to the parents, and they’ve been very understanding.”

Hiring a teacher from Mexico is more complicated and costly than hiring teachers from Puerto Rico or Spain because it requires a special work visa, of which only a set amount are approved each year. Teachers from Puerto Rico don’t need a visa, and those from Spain come here under an exchange visa arranged by their government.

It can take months to secure the proper documentation in Mexico.

The districts forward the completed applications to the regional boards for approval, which then must send them to the Illinois State Board of Education to get the temporary teaching certificate.

Long waits for visas

The districts had to wait for the state approval before they could apply for visas from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It typically takes two to three months to get the visas approved–unless the districts pay a $1,000 fee that guarantees a two-week turnaround. And even after that, the teachers must wait weeks to get an appointment at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City. Then there’s another wait before the teacher can return to pick up the completed visa.

Despite the problems, bilingual administrators say they don’t plan to abandon recruiting in Mexico. They said teachers from Mexico tend to stay longer than those from other places where Spanish-speaking teachers are recruited.

The rough Chicago winters discourage many teachers from Puerto Rico, and teachers from Spain generally are younger and view the job as an experience rather than a permanent opportunity, officials said.

Without the teachers from foreign countries or Puerto Rico, districts would have to hire even more teachers with little or no teaching experience. Anyone with a college degree and fluency in Spanish can apply for a bilingual teaching job.

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