A teacher shortage has Waukegan School District 60 staff traveling to Spain to find qualified bilingual teachers, district officials said.
While the deficit of teachers has impacted rural districts hardest, some Lake County school districts have felt the impact, especially in their hunt for special education and bilingual teachers, state data shows.
Of approximately 1,006 teaching positions across Illinois that were still unfilled in October, 49 were in Lake County, according to state data. More than third of the unfilled positions in Lake County were bilingual and English as a second language teachers, and nearly 40 percent were for special education teachers.
Many of these positions require additional certification on top of a teaching license, said Angel Figueroa, Waukegan District 60’s interim associate superintendent of human resources and employee relations.
The hardest positions to fill are the ones that require both, said Anthony Orrico, the district’s director of diverse learners. The district also struggles to find bilingual speech pathologists.
The 15,800-student district had 14 unfilled teaching positions in October, more than two months after school had started, according to state data.
The number of open position typically fluctuates widely as the first day of school approaches, Figueroa said. The district had 40 unfilled teaching positions late last week, 14 of them for bilingual teachers.
Figueroa expects those numbers to climb as some teachers find positions elsewhere and hand in their resignations, he said. The district sees a higher turnover among bilingual teachers, especially because they are in greater demand.
Many teachers get their start in districts like Waukegan, which is more apt to hire teachers fresh out of college because they have more positions to fill, Figueroa said. Once those teachers gain experience, they often leave for different districts, either because the pay tends to be higher in more affluent districts or because it cuts their commute.
“I’ve lost wonderful, incredible teachers every year, not because they don’t love Waukegan or because they’re unhappy with us, but because they live in places like Elgin,” said Figueroa, the former principal of North Elementary School.
There’s not much District 60 officials can do about geography, but they can look at other factors that encourage teachers to stay despite the commute, he said.
A new teachers’ contract approved in March gave bigger raises to the district’s newer teachers in an effort to boost salaries and make the district more competitive, board President Michael Rodriguez said at the time.
That’s something about which the district’s superintendent remains cognizant, Figueroa said, adding that retention is also a focus for North Chicago School District 187’s new superintendent.
John Price officially took over the 3,300-student district’s top job on July 1, and he said that teacher retention “is a real focus” for his first three years. Part of that process will be showing staff throughout the district — paraprofessionals, teachers and administrators — that there is a path to career development.
The district has gotten aggressive about recruiting as well, starting earlier in the year and visiting colleges in the region with good education programs, Price said.
The work seems to be paying off, as the district has hired 50 new staff members and currently has 13 vacancies, “much better” than where the district was this time last year, he said.
North Chicago District 187 had 10 positions unfilled in October, according to state data.
If the positions remain unfilled, they can cost school districts additional money, said Tom Moline, the superintendent of the Special Education District of Lake County.
The 630-student district serves students from 31 Lake County school districts who have some of the most severe or specialized needs.
The district is fully staffed in terms of its teaching positions, but is struggling to find speech and language, physical and occupation therapists, which are certified but not teaching positions, Moline said.
If the district can find someone to fill the position, it is still required by law to provide the services outlined in a student’s individualized education program, he said. That can mean hiring an outside agency to provide someone, typically at a cost of about an $100 an hour or more.
That’s much more than it would cost to pay the salary and benefits of someone on staff, he said.
A new law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in late June is designed to help address the teacher shortage by streamlining the licensing requirements for certain specialties, including for career and technical education teachers and school psychologists.
While Moline said he thinks the changes will help, Waukegan’s Orrico was less optimistic because the legislation doesn’t impact the positions his district has the most trouble filling.
Much of the shortage is caused by fewer people going into education, Moline said, pointing to changes in the pension system that make it less attractive, and concerns over whether entry-level salaries will be enough to pay off student loans.
“The attraction to being a teacher has diminished,” he said.
Both Moline and Figueroa suggested expansions of the federal loan forgiveness program to make teaching in poorer districts more attractive.
In the past, some colleges put together local cohorts of teachers interested in attaining additional certificates, Figueroa said. The teachers were able to get their coursework done locally.
He said he plans on reaching out to universities to see if that’s something they can bring back.
Waukegan District 60 also takes advantage of a collaboration put together by Illinois State Board of Education with the government of Spain, Figueroa said. An agreement between the two allows Waukegan to bring in qualified bilingual teachers.
An expansion of that program would also expand the district’s hiring options, he said.
“We’d obviously prefer to hire locally, but this is the result of the shortage that we have,” Figueroa said.