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Parlez-vous? Maine schools struggle to find foreign language teachers

In a taxing scramble to find qualified foreign language teachers, some Maine school districts are turning to digitized assistance to expose their students to other tongues.

More than one have decided to use Rosetta Stone for their foreign or world language instruction, opting for the computer-based software where flesh-and-blood teachers aren’t available.

Madison Area Memorial High School in Somerset County drew widespread media attention last month after it decided to purchase Rosetta Stone to teach its students. Schools in the Bingham, Dyer Brook and Lincoln areas also are relying on computer software.

The shortage of applicants for foreign or world language teacher openings has been especially prevalent in smaller, more remote school districts, where administrators say they’re fighting to attract qualified people to apply.

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“I have had trouble securing qualified foreign language teachers, especially in rural school systems,” said Kenneth Smith, superintendent of Holden-based Regional School Unit 63 who also has led school districts in Millinocket, Bingham, Camden and New Hampshire. “In some cases we were forced to offer a particular foreign language because we could not find a qualified teacher in the language we preferred. The supply simply does not meet the demand.”

For some schools, the challenge is finding a teacher certified to lead French and Spanish classes, an appealing option for rural schools who need to provide both options to students on a tight budget. Other schools want to offer a broader slate of language options — Chinese, German or American Sign Language, for example. Teachers in those languages can be even harder to pin down without the right connections.

The problem in part stems from fewer college students wanting to teach languages, according to Jay Ketner, world languages specialist for the Maine Department of Education. Several Maine universities have either eliminated or cut back their foreign language offerings in recent years because of a lack of funding or dwindling numbers of prospective graduates in those programs.

“There is a shortage of foreign language teachers across the nation, and Maine is not immune to this trend,” Ketner said.

Madison high school advertised last summer for a world languages teacher to teach French and Spanish but saw very little interest, according to Jessica Ward, School Administrative District 59’s superintendent. The school received one qualified applicant, but that person accepted a job elsewhere before the district contacted them.

So the district spent $11,000 to bring Rosetta Stone into the classroom and hired an education technician to supervise.

Ward said it’s too early to tell how successful the computer program transition has been or how long it will last.

“For the most part, I think the kids are enjoying it,” Ward said Thursday.

The computer program has a few upsides, she added. Each student is allowed to progress at his or her own pace, moving quickly past lessons they find easy or going back to redo lessons that they’ve struggled with — something they might not be able to do while learning in a traditional classroom. Each student also can choose from a range of languages, not just French or Spanish, she said, and the program forces quieter students to speak the language, something they might not do during a normal class.

Still, Ward added, the district “probably” will repost the job in the spring.

“I think we’ll need to assess at the end of the year and see how the kids have fared,” she said.

Just before the start of the 2014-2015 school year RSU 50, based in southern Aroostook County, temporarily moved to Rosetta Stone when it couldn’t find a teacher in time, according to Michael Hammer, a former superintendent there who today leads the Newport-area school district.

“I had a terrible time up in the County getting a qualified world language teacher,” Hammer said Thursday.

The following year, when Hammer arrived in RSU 50, the district managed to find a Spanish teacher, but that teacher was stretched thin, alternating days between the district’s two high schools in Stacyville and Dyer Brook, which are 25 miles apart. The teacher left after the year was up, according to Hammer.

Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln had one qualified applicant for a Spanish teacher opening over the summer but didn’t get any responses for an American Sign Language teacher opening, according to RSU 67 Superintendent Keith Laser.

“We opted to hire an ed tech to lead a class that offers online instruction in ASL and we are using Rosetta Stone to offer Spanish to our learners in grades four through eight and as an option in our high school to take a foreign language of the learner’s choice,” Laser said. “The shortage has forced us to think outside the box and leverage our district’s investment in one-to-one technology [student laptops and tablets] for grades four through 12.”

Even more heavily populated districts, where schools often pay higher wages, are struggling to find language teachers without plenty of notice.

“We had a resignation in the middle of August from a French teacher who went to another district,” Jeremy Ray, superintendent in Biddeford, said. The district began advertising immediately, and soon Ray and the high school principal started calling “every college and university that had a foreign language major throughout New England,” looking for a recent graduate who was willing to take the job.

“Biddeford is one of those towns with strong French-Canadian ties, and here we couldn’t find anyone to teach French,” he said Friday.

The district already had a teacher who was certified in French and Spanish, so that educator was moved over to French and the district brought in a new Spanish teacher, who came just in time. The school had a couple of teacher workshop days under its belt, just before school started, when the new teacher arrived.

“We couldn’t find anybody,” Ray said “And that’s the scary part for the future. I get the sense that’s happening everywhere.”

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.


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