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

31 Illinois school districts use the state’s international teacher program, including five in McHenry County

Victoria Garcia Blanco helps Sophia Muro, 10, as she converses with a student in Spain Wednesday, May 18, 2022, during a fifth-grade dual language class at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Garcia Blanco, a native of Spain, organized the exchange to connect the students with students from Colegio Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Vedruna, the school in Spain where she previously taught.

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 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.

Victoria Garcia Blanco talks with her students while the class meets with students from Spain Wednesday, May 18, 2022, during a fifth-grade dual language class at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Garcia Blanco, a native of Spain, organized the exchange to connect Coventry dual language students with students from Colegio Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Vedruna, the school in Spain where she previously taught.

As of 2021, 31 Illinois host districts use the program, including five in McHenry County; overall the program has increased by more than 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 major 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 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.

Sophia Muro, 10, converses with a with student from Spain Wednesday, May 18, 2022, during a fifth-grade dual language class at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Teacher Victoria Garcia Blanco, a native of Spain, organized the exchange to connect the students with students from Colegio Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Vedruna, the school in Spain where she previously taught.

Even districts that aren’t using 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.”

Among the benefits 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 almost 30 bilingual teachers through the state program, and has 51 bilingual and dual language teachers currently on staff throughout the district, Buchanan said.

Victoria Garcia Blanco talks with a teacher in Spain Wednesday, May 18, 2022, while teaching a fifth-grade dual language class at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Garcia Blanco, a native of Spain, organized the exchange to connect Coventry dual language students with students from Colegio Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Vedruna, the school in Spain where she previously taught.

Visiting teachers within Woodstock’s district also have been able to teach courses like biology and world history in Spanish, Krueger said.

“Overall it’s been a great program,” Krueger said of the visiting teachers initiative. “We’ve had many teachers over the years, and for the most part we have good things to say. It really helped fill a need at the middle and high schools.”

Visiting teachers are asked to make a three-year commitment overall, as part of the program, according to the Illinois Board of Education’s website.

Within the past year, the state’s visiting teachers program has increased the number of visiting teachers from about 70 to almost 100, and signed agreements with Medina Ramos Global Education Group in Mexico and with the Teachers of English Association of Morocco to increase recruitment, Matthews said.

“The Visiting International Teacher Program provides a unique opportunity for cultural exchange,” Matthews said. “The program offers Illinois school districts the opportunity to recruit highly qualified international teachers to areas that fit their professional background, which are often areas that have teacher shortages in Illinois.”

Victoria Garcia Blanco and student Eduardo Lopez, 10, answer a question from a student in Spain Wednesday, May 18, 2022, during a fifth-grade dual language class at Coventry Elementary School in Crystal Lake. Garcia Blanco, a native of Spain, organized the exchange to connect the dual language students with students from Colegio Sagrado Corazón de Jesús Vedruna, the school in Spain where she previously taught.

Garcia Blanco, who came via the visiting teachers’ program in 2018, is fluent in three other languages in addition to English and Spanish: Catalan, French and Portuguese. Garcia Blanco said she intends to stay in the U.S. as a teacher for at least a few more years.

Garcia Blanco is one of two teachers at Coventry participating in the language exchange program with the Valencia school where she worked before coming to the U.S. She said the program taught her how to adapt to new teaching styles and helped her acquire new teaching skills.

“We don’t do as much classroom management in Spain,” Garcia Blanco said. “The way we talk to students is also different. But it’s good to have different methodologies, and then we can teach students cultural things about Spain or Hispanic cultures.”

After speaking with the students abroad, fifth-grader Oscar Sangabriel-Landa said he’d like to visit Spain one day.

“It’s nice to meet them in person,” Sangabriel-Landa said of the morning event. “I feel like I made some friends.”

“They are not that different from us,” said student Sophia Muro, whose parents are from Mexico. “We do a lot of the things they do. They do a lot of the things we do. We all want to hang out, go to school, eat ice cream, all the normal stuff.”