"Durante mi vida y todos mis viajes, siempre recordare que el espaM-qol es la lengua mejor."
That's the way Loch Raven High School senior Michael Hackett feels about the Spanish language. For those unfamiliar with the Romance language of Spain and of Central and South America, Hackett says it's the best.
He's not alone. Student enrollment in Spanish language classes in Baltimore County has challenged teacher hiring recently, and forced the Board of Education to consider spending $470,000 on new textbooks.
Since 1997, enrollment in Spanish classes at the high school and middle school level has increased by 3,150 students -- from 17,874 three years ago to 21,024 today.
Statewide, a serious lack of Spanish teachers exists, said Susan C. Spinnato, Baltimore County's coordinator of Foreign Languages and English for Speakers of Other Languages. Desperate for Spanish teachers, Spinnato has been forced to hire teachers who are not fully certified, she said.
Last year, county schools recruiters visited teacher colleges and job fairs across Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York in search of Spanish teachers, said June Marshall, a school system personnel officer.
Although recruiters managed to fill every Spanish language position by the start of school, two teachers have left. A post at Woodlawn Middle School remains open, said Marshall. A substitute has been filling in.
The problem, Spinnato said, is that Spanish teachers, like math and science teachers, can earn more money and receive better benefits outside the classroom.
"The attrition rate is greater than it used to be," she said. "Because we are seeing more Spanish and more people who speak Spanish in our area, there is a need for people with that language skill."
The competitive job market has forced school administrators to get creative in their search for teachers who know Spanish. Recently, they've tried to reach out to Spanish-speaking communities in the Baltimore area but have had little success finding people who speak Spanish but also know how to teach it, Spinnato said.
Another idea is to expand a program that was started several years ago by a Spanish language teacher at Loch Raven. Since 1995, master Spanish teacher Lolita Lassen has recruited high school students to teach Spanish to pupils at area elementary schools.
The volunteer program has been so successful that some students have gone on to study Spanish in college and become Spanish teachers. One of Lassen's former students is a Spanish teacher at Patapsco High School. Two others are studying to become teachers with a minor in Spanish. Lassen predicts school administrators could ask them to switch to Spanish if the shortage continues.
"Most of my students will minor in Spanish in college because they know that it will help them in their professional lives somewhere down the line," Lassen said, who added that French used to be the foreign language of choice for college-bound students. Not so today.
"In 1990, I had seven kids in [advanced Spanish classes], now I have 28 kids in Spanish 6, and next year I will have 50 or more kids in Spanish 5 and 80 kids in Spanish 4," she said. "Students know that knowledge of the Spanish language could be their trump card in a competitive job situation where two or more people are vying for the same spot."
When Lassen started the Spanish program -- she helps student teachers plan lessons -- she had no idea it would be so popular with students, many of whom relish the time spent with younger pupils who are eager to learn words like "sombrero" and "estomago."
On a recent trip to Carroll Manor Elementary School, about 15 Loch Raven students huddled in the lobby before peeling off to classrooms where they spent about 25 minutes teaching basic Spanish words and phrases.
Hackett and his teaching partner, Amy Gorsuch, also 17, drilled first-graders on the names of body parts and articles of clothing.
"Where is your `estomago?'" asked Gorsuch. "Everyone point to your `estomago.'" The children gleefully indicated their stomachs.
At the end of the lesson, during which the children received points for correct answers and candy for good behavior, Teresa Spencer, 7, hugged Gorsuch, laying her head against the older girl's hip and whispering, "Thank you."
It's interaction like that that has tempted Gorsuch to consider a career as a teacher. "Maybe, I like it a lot, and there's such a need for teachers," she said. "But I'm not sure I want to make that commitment now. I'm thinking about majoring in computer science."
Administrators are optimistic that Lassen's tutoring program could be turned into an incubator for future Spanish teachers.
"That way we'd have our own homegrown Spanish teachers," Spinnato said. "And they'd have less background to pick up because they'd be familiar with the system."