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North Chicago schools turn to Spain for bilingual teachers

Meritxell Miret pre-K bilingual teacher Yeager School North Chicago leads KarlChacher class song. Miret is one eight bilingual teachers from

Meritxell Miret, a pre-K bilingual teacher at Yeager School in North Chicago, leads Karla Chacon and her class in a song. Miret is one of eight bilingual teachers from Spain hired to teach in North Chicago schools. | Rob Dicker~Sun-Times Media

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Teachers from Spain now teaching in North Chicago arrived in a district and a state that is undergoing a ramping-up of teaching and learning assessments. Administrators in North Chicago will look closely at standardized test scores in deciding whether to extend an invitation to the Spaniards to stay a full three years.

Francisco Rodriguez of Madrid, who teaches math and science, said he’s enjoying the support of his American counterparts and works with them closely to track student progress and discuss what teaching methods work best.

“As a teacher you want to make the most of your time and bring students to a higher level,” Rodriguez said. “Tests are out of my control. I have to do my best. If there’s a problem with a specific objective, we work harder, re-teach, and assess again. We’re using numbers to control the result. That’s a good way to improve and to understand what’s going on.”

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Updated: November 16, 2011 9:28AM

District 187 public schools have gone global for a solution to a shortage of highly qualified bilingual teachers. The district recently recruited and hired eight teachers from Spain, including Meritxell Miret, 30, from Barcelona, who is bracing for her first Midwest winter.

Miret, who is sharing privatized housing at Naval Station Great Lakes with two other teachers from Spain, warmed-up students in her Yeager Elementary pre-kindergarten enrichment class Wednesday morning with a song that the tykes sang first in English, then in Spanish: “Hello! Hello! How are you? I am fine. I hope that you are, too.”

One of Miret’s students, Maria, 4, who shyly said “Yes,” she likes America “mucho,” is the child of Neal Academy math and science teacher Francisco Rodriguez, 41, who arrived from Madrid with his young family in tow. Another daughter is enrolled at Forrestal Elementary and his wife, also a teacher in Madrid, is helping the district as a volunteer.

Rodriguez speaks with a different accent than his students who mostly hail from Mexico, but the goal in his classes is to learn — and teach — in English.

“Most of time I speak with them in English, but sometimes when they’re struggling I use Spanish,” said Rodriguez, who explains concepts in Spanish to two students who speak no English then pushes them to “use English.”

“The most important thing is that they understand what they’re doing,” Rodriguez said, “So if they need Spanish, I’m going to use Spanish.”

The district is educating about 800 students in bilingual classes. In 2008, that number was 566, according to Director of Bilingual Education Sheila Sherman.

“The demand for services is there and it’s increasing every year,” said Sherman, who is fluent in Spanish.

Before turning to Spain, the district relied on teachers who earned a bilingual or ESL endorsement, as well as change-of-career teachers who possessed bachelor degrees and passed a language certification test. The problem, said Sherman, is that some failed to pass a required basic skills exam. Others failed to make progress on full-certification coursework.

“We don’t want just any person who can speak Spanish,” Sherman said. “We want qualified teachers who have taken the classes, who have passed state-mandated exams. We’re raising standards. We can’t accept somebody no one else wants.”

Most of the teachers recruited from Spain possess master’s degrees. Some speak multiple languages. All are screened for fluency and credentials by the state. They commit to teaching for at least one year and may stay for three. They’re paid according to the teachers’ union contract.

During a trip to Madrid in April, Sherman ran into other recruiters from school districts in Colorado, California, Texas and Virginia.

North Chicago Schools Chief Milt Thompson said Wisconsin, where he lives and previously ran schools, is also scrambling to find certified bilingual teachers.

“It’s an issue you can solve, but there’s not any easy fixes to solve it,” he said. “You can affiliate with a university program, but then money has to change hands and you have to find a funding source and some kind of sweetener.”

“It’s an issue of supply and demand,” said Sherman, who noted that districts that pay more have an advantage. “These teachers are in great demand. They have a skill set that’s not easily acquired as an adult. You either have the language or you don’t.”

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