MADISON — With just a few weeks to go before the start of school, Madison Area Memorial High School Principal Jessica Ward faced a dilemma: Classes were about to start, and the school didn’t have a foreign language teacher.

She contacted nearby universities and the Department of Education and posted the job online, but no one applied, even as five other open teaching positions were filled.

“It was coming down to the wire and school was starting,” Ward said. “Students were already scheduled for foreign language, and we can’t just not offer it.”

The school district had earmarked money for the position, so the guidance counselor and superintendent started researching other options, ultimately putting the money toward the computer program Rosetta Stone to take the place of a full-time French and Spanish teacher.

They also hired an education technician to supervise students and oversee the program’s administration.

“Ideally we do want to get a teacher in,” Ward said. “This isn’t perfect, but it was the best option to move our students forward this year.”

Madison is not alone in its struggle to attract foreign language teachers. The problem is statewide, especially in rural school districts, because the shortage allows teachers to be more selective about where they work and live, according to Jay Ketner, world languages specialist at the Maine Department of Education.

The problem largely stems from a lack of students pursuing degrees in teaching foreign language at colleges and universities, perhaps because of the elimination of some teacher training programs in Maine’s public university system, Ketner said. Because there is also a nationwide shortage of foreign language teachers, it is hard to attract teachers from out-of-state.

While technology like Rosetta Stone is not a replacement for a live foreign language teacher, educators say it is a way to allow schools to continue offering foreign language instruction.

‘A MAJOR PROBLEM’

In Madison, 67 out of 215 high school students take a foreign language, which Ward said is usually recommended or required by colleges.

In nearby Farmington, Mt. Blue Regional School Unit Superintendent Tom Ward said students at Mt. Blue High School are required to take one year of foreign language in order to graduate.

“In the last two or three years we’ve had a particularly hard time trying to find French world language teachers,” Ward said.

While the high school has a French and Spanish teacher, the district has been unable to fill a French teaching position at Mt. Blue Middle School and as a result does not currently offer French. The district also stopped offering German about four years ago because it couldn’t find a German teacher.

“It’s a major problem, not just in Maine but nationwide,” Ward said.

In Bingham, School Administrative District 13 Superintendent Virginia Rebar said that recruiting foreign language teachers, in particular those who are certified to teach both French and Spanish, is a problem.

That district has also adopted the Rosetta Stone program for the first time this year for its Spanish students.

“It’s difficult, not just finding someone certified in a language but dual-certification so they can teach more than one language, which is often what we look for in a small school,” Rebar said.

NO SUBSTITUTE

The Rosetta Stone program is currently used in more than 4,000 schools nationwide and by more than 500,000 students. Ideally, the software is used in conjunction with a live teacher, said Franklin Moomaw, a Rosetta Stone regional sales director for education.

“We never want to replace someone’s job,” Moomaw said. “But when you have that problem of not being able to find a teacher, it’s a way for schools to still provide that high quality language instruction.”

In Madison, the program has allowed the high school to expand its language offerings. Instead of just French or Spanish, students can now choose from up to 30 different languages.

It also allows for flexibility around different abilities and skill levels with one classroom containing students of different levels all working in different languages.

The program uses language immersion to teach, meaning that students are forced to use the language to learn it, but that also means they can’t always ask questions about word meaning and grammar, Moomaw said.

In a traditional classroom, it’s common for some students to feel uncomfortable speaking in front of their peers. The computer eliminates that problem, said Education Technician Nicholas Paradis, who oversees the language classes at Madison High School.

Paige Wong, a senior foreign exchange student from Taiwan, said she likes the program because it picks up on areas that are challenging for her – listening skills and conversation.

“With a teacher there’s more focus on grammar and vocabulary,” Wong said. “This is focused on listening and conversation.”

The program also allows students to work at their own pace, the only requirement being that they finish one language level by the end of the year.

There is no homework, although students can work on the program at home, and the only tests are the ones prompted by the program. There’s also the opportunity to return to a particular lesson if it’s something a student struggles with.

That happened recently for freshman Laurie LeBlanc, who was told by the program that she would return to a particular lesson later this month.

“In a regular classroom, that wouldn’t happen,” Paradis said. “The teacher would say, ‘OK, you got an 80. You’re good forever. Bye.’ Instead, everyone that got an 80 now has to come back and take the quiz again.”

LeBlanc said she wasn’t sure what to think of the program, since she had never studied a foreign language. “It doesn’t make a difference to me since I didn’t have a teacher before,” she said.

In Madison, Ward said the school hopes to hire a foreign language teacher by next year, even if the Rosetta Stone program continues to be successful this year.

“It’s hard to replace having a real person there to help students when they are struggling or to make the learning relevant to their lives,” she said. “Yes, they are learning the language with the Rosetta Stone program, but I worry that they are missing out on the cultural education and the personal touch of having a real teacher available.”