By Kassidy Arena, Iowa Public Radio
One boy crossed his eyes and shouted: “!Mira a mis ojos!” which translates to “Look at my eyes!”
All of that chit-chat was in Spanish.
The school, located in Pella, a town of just over 10,000 people, has two language “tracks,” said Rebecca Gomez, the school’s Spanish Immersion program director. That means students can take classes in English, or they can get instruction from teachers and talk with fellow students in Spanish.
Gomez came from Mexico with her family about ten years ago and started at Pella Christian as a teacher before moving into administration. In her eight years directing the Spanish Immersion program, one of the biggest challenges is finding faculty.
“It is really hard here in Pella,” Gomez said. “We don’t have a lot of diversity. It’s hard to find teachers, and especially because of our criteria for teachers.”
For one thing, teachers must be Christian. And, there is a more difficult challenge: The requirement that teachers be native Spanish speakers — or as close to a native speaker’s ability as possible. A teacher in Iowa has to pass a standardized test — it’s generally called “the Praxis,” a series of tests for teacher preparation — that are only offered in English. It can be a barrier to landing permanent, native Spanish-speaking teachers for immersion programs that will be entirely in Spanish.
Andriz Melenciano came to teach in Pella’s language immersion school from the Dominican Republic. She taught in the Dominican Republic for about 11 years before moving to Iowa. She has taught in Iowa for about four years.
She had a number of difficulties trying to obtain her teaching license in Iowa.
“One, the immigration process took me a long time because I come from a very small city where there wasn’t internet,” Melenciano said in Spanish. “And the communication with Rebecca [Gomez], the director of the program here, was very difficult.”
She also added leaving her family, students and her favorite foods were among those difficulties.
Melenciano said there was one other step to teach in Iowa that was posed a barrier to getting her Iowa teaching license.
Although she can speak English to an extent, she feels more comfortable speaking in Spanish. She said the Praxis test was difficult for her.
“It was very difficult because you’re faced with grammar, with phonetics, with phonology of the English language. And also with a lot of teaching and learning methods that you come to learn in the field,” she said in Spanish.
The Praxis is a relatively common test for teacher certification; it’s also used in neighboring states like Nebraska and Kansas. Both of those states would accept a teacher applicant from out of the country, but there are still extra steps. The applicant would still need to take the tests and in Kansas, possibly an English proficiency exam. This also applies to dual language immersion educators.
There are other ways to earn a teaching license in Iowa, but taking a Praxis test is the most common and applies to most applicants. The Iowa Department of Education explained since immersion teachers teach the same subjects as monolingual teachers, they require the same tests.
Currently, a Praxis spokesperson said, the general test is only offered in English. Teachers who are studying to become World Language educators are offered Praxis exams in the language they will be teaching. However, this test does not apply to dual language immersion teachers who will be educating on all subjects in a different language.
Praxis test takers can request additional testing time as part of the “Primary Language Not English” (PLNE) accommodations, which gives test takers 50 percent more testing time. This rule does not apply to World Language tests.
BILINGUAL TEST TAKERS
Other dual-language elementary school programs across the state have also called the mandatory test a challenge. Brenda Arthur-Miller, the dual language director for the West Liberty Community School District, said it can also act as a barrier to people born and raised in the U.S. who are bilingual.
“A test like the Praxis, which is a standardized test written in fairly high level academia English, right? If you’re someone who’s bilingual, your academic level in both languages may not be as high as someone who only speaks one language,” Arthur-Miller said. “Now, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have the ability to speak and be an intellectual. It’s just perhaps, at varying levels in each language.”
West Liberty Community School District does have an option other Iowa schools don’t have. The elementary, middle, and high school are all International Spanish Academies (ISAs), which means they have a partnership with the Ministry of Education of Spain.
It’s a program that will send teachers to the state on a temporary status to teach in the dual-language program. Since those teachers are on a special status, they do not need an Iowa teacher’s certificate. That means they don’t need to take a standardized test like the Praxis.
But that program isn’t an option for all dual language immersion programs. According to the Iowa Department of Education, the West Liberty Community School District is the only ISA in the state.
The teachers through ISA are really meant to be in Iowa on a temporary status, which can limit relationships with the students. People like Gomez would prefer teachers on a permanent status who can continue to engage with students even as they age up.
“We want these teachers to stick around because we’ve invested in their immigration process, we invested in giving them this professional development, and just the fact of how much I work with them to help them grow. We want them here longer than that visa would allow,” she said.
She also said her school couldn’t be a part of the program as it is structured now since they cannot ask an applicant’s religion, which is integral to their teaching model as a Christian school.
Gomez said she wishes there were more options for teachers. That way, language immersion students can have the same opportunities as those in monolingual schools.
“I just wish there was some way that we could either offer that in Spanish to the teachers or provide a little grace for them saying, ‘We will give you a provisional license for a few years,’” she said.
Missouri has a similar option. According to a spokesperson from the Missouri Department of Education, a charter school with language immersion as its mission, can accept teacher certificates obtained in other countries.
Meghan Hill, the superintendent for the St. Louis Language Immersion School, said this flexibility is critical to filling up the school with qualified teachers.
“If we were not able to consider people who didn’t have a Missouri teaching certificate, we wouldn’t have any depth to our applicant pools, we’d have a very limited pool to work with,” Hill said. And we may not, in some cases, we may not have any applicants,” Hill said.
Gregg Roberts, the director of Dual Language Studies for the American Councils Research Center, led a study in conjunction with the American Councils for International Education to canvass all public school dual language immersion programs in the U.S. in 2021. The majority of which are Spanish, at around 2,936, followed by Chinese at around 312.The project leaders of the canvass spoke with state education departments as well as further work with sourcing to count: Iowa and Nebraska each have 12, Kansas has nine and Missouri has eight.
Roberts expects these numbers to continue to increase in the future.
“We need to create students that can interact with the entire world, in multiple languages, just for our well being as a country,” Roberts said. “And we create multilingual students, we put empathy, you know, cultural sensitivity, perspective of the world, into these students,” Roberts said.
Studies have shown language immersion in schools have many benefits, including higher academic achievement, as well as an increased tolerance and acceptance of other cultures.
Pella parent Steve Runner has four children enrolled in language immersion and he said he sees what Roberts described in his own children. He described how his children have grown in their respect for others and in their confidence with speaking to people who are different from them.
“I think [they] have a good knowledge and understanding of broader culture than they would have just growing up in our home. So we’ve been blessed by that,” he said.
Roberts said multilingualism is further helpful for the U.S. economy because it can help create a wealth of resources for the business world.
‘THEY’RE NOT MEEK’
Language immersion directors have also shared how the programs help build up Spanish-speakers, because it allows them to take on leadership roles in an environment that they couldn’t have done in an English-only school.
Noelia Espinal has seen this firsthand in students as young as four. She is an early childhood educator at the Muskie Early Learning Center in Muscatine. Its dual language program started in 2021.“My native Spanish speakers, they’re not nervous, they’re not meek. They’re leaders. They’re not afraid to say what they need to say,” Espinal said.
The dual-language preschool Espinal teaches has 20 students enrolled with a long waiting list. Next year, Espinal hopes to add more sections.
The district — Muscatine Community School District — recently added a dual language kindergarten to account for its preschool dual language learners. Luckily Espinal said there was already a bilingual teacher within the school to hire in-house, so there was no additional testing, Praxis or non, required.
Although the situation worked out well for one dual language program, Gomez said it would be great if all the state’s programs came together to share the challenges they experience.
“I think if enough of us protest and voice this concern, then maybe the organization that writes the Praxis test will start offering them in a different language,” she said.
Dual language immersion programs mean a lot to the students who participate in them. Pella 13-year-olds Ellie Dykstra and Nora Lamb are both completely fluent in Spanish and English. Dykstra wants to be a veterinarian and Lamb wants to be a physical therapist. They plan to use both of their languages to help people. Whether it’s helping translate directions or helping future people and pets.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Kate Grumke contributed to this report. The Midwest Newsroom’s Daniel Wheaton designed the quiz.