Urbana schools may host teachers from Spain

Program would let local faculty members travel, study there as well

URBANA — The Urbana school district, which prides itself on diversity, may host several temporary teachers from Spain next year.

The district is participating in an international exchange program between the Illinois State Board of Education and the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, which gives it the opportunity to hire teachers from Spain.

The program will also allow for Urbana teachers to travel to Spain for three-week courses or even earn master's degrees from Spanish universities.

Students taking Advanced Placement Spanish may also have the chance to study in Spain during the summer or participate in an adventure and learning scholarship.

"At the heart of it is the idea of the exchange," said Joe Wiemelt, Urbana's director of bilingual and multicultural programs, adding that teachers have already approached him about the idea of traveling to Spain in the summer.

The Spanish Ministry of Education recently paid for Wiemelt to travel to Spain to interview possible teachers there.

He spent a week there in late April and interviewed 30 candidates, all of whom had been pre-screened to ensure they're qualified and proficient in English.

Wiemelt said it's possible that Urbana could host three or four teachers from Spain next year, depending on how interviews with local candidates go. Preference is given to local candidates, Wiemelt said, but the teachers from Spain could help with hard-to-fill positions.

"We're looking for the best opportunities for our students," Wiemelt said.

Hosting teachers from Spain would help diversify Urbana's schools even more, Wiemelt said, as the town is home to people from South America and Europe who speak Spanish.

With the addition of Spanish teachers, students in Urbana's dual-language programs could have teachers whose cultural heritages are from Spain, Colombia, Mexico and the United States.

"What an opportunity to learn both English and Spanish and understand the world around us," Wiemelt said.

The state board of education sponsors a three-year visa for visiting teachers, said Jorge Berne, an employee of the Spanish government stationed in Chicago to facilitate the exchange. He was a high school teacher who participated in the exchange, coming to Illinois to teach in the Chicago Public Schools.

"For me, it's been the best thing I've done in my life," Berne said. "I love what I do right now, but I think that the best and most enriched learning experience I've had in my life ... was being a teacher in Illinois and working in the Chicago Public Schools. It made me the type of teacher I became and I will always be."

Twenty-eight states have programs like this, although Berne said that Illinois' program is one of the largest.

Berne said he's particularly interested in helping Urbana schools connect with sister schools in Spain. He said he heard Wiemelt give a presentation about the district last fall, and asked him to apply for the program.

Woodstock, another Illinois school district that participates in the exchange, also has a sister school and sent middle school students to visit there this year, said Keely Krueger, the school district's director of grants, language and culture. They're hoping to host some middle school students from Spain next year, she said.

Woodstock has participated in the exchange for 12 years, she said, and has hosted between 30 and 35 teachers from Spain.

"They come (here) good teachers and they leave better teachers," Krueger said. "They're so hardworking and so interested in learning our experiences."

She said in her community, many of the native Spanish-speaking students are from Mexico and Central America, so having teachers from Spain has opened their eyes to other Spanish-speaking cultures.

Almost 25 percent of Woodstock's students — about 1,400 — are in dual-language classrooms, she said.

Urbana will begin its own dual-language program next year. Wiemelt said it's a coincidence that both dual-language and bringing teachers from Spain are happening in the same year.

The school district applied to participate in the program last fall, before the school board approved dual language this winter.

But having teachers from Spain will help will help establish diversity in the program, Wiemelt said. It's possible three Spanish teachers will work in the dual-language program, he said.

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