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Northwest Iowa schools struggle to find Spanish teachers

LAWTON, Iowa | Kami Busch left Northwestern College in 2013, armed with a degree in Spanish and a quest to teach in that field in a Siouxland school district.

Busch applied in two schools and quickly was hired at Akron-Westfield. then moved after one year to Lawton-Bronson, where she has now taught Spanish for four years.

"I feel confident that if I was going to move, I could find something," Busch said.

Her confidence grew out of a recognition that Spanish teaching candidates in Iowa are often few and far between.

The Iowa Department of Education and U.S. Department of Education annually compile lists of subjects with teacher shortages, based on the number of licenses issued, the number of projected graduates in each discipline and number and frequency of job postings on a statewide teacher recruitment website.

In the 1990s, there was only one school year when Spanish teachers for grades 7-12 didn't make that list. Since then, when the national category was broadened to all foreign languages, there were only two years -- 2013-14 and 2014-15 -- when a shortage of foreign language teachers in Iowa was not found.

Education officials point out Spanish isn't the only shortage subject area in Iowa. The list also includes many specialty, non-core, courses such as industrial technology, family and consumer sciences, business, many science subjects and Talented and Gifted.

Larry Bice, Iowa Department of Education Administrative Consultant for Educator Preparedness, said shortages of Spanish teachers are most acute in rural districts, where openings often may draw only two or fewer candidates. Bice noted the overwhelming number of Spanish teachers in the state are in their 20s.

Just 41 graduates of Iowa universities and colleges in 2016 had teaching degrees with an emphasis in Spanish language, Bice said. Of those, 14 graduates were from the University of Northern Iowa. At other colleges with teaching programs, there were smatterings of one to four graduates.

Bice said state officials often speak with college administrators about targeting shortage areas, to put resources in those subject fields and to speak with college students to consider such options.

In the last four years, the Sioux City Community School  District has filled three jobs for Spanish teachers. Combined, 11 candidates applied for the openings, including two in 2014 and just one in 2015.

Rita Vannatta, the district's human resources director, said other elementary teacher openings, by comparison, typically receive 40 or more applicants.

Spanish is taught in the Sioux City district's three high schools, but not in its middle schools. Vannatta said the district has been "fortunate" to not have unfilled Spanish teaching posts.

Vannatta said the district recruits to fill the district's 2,000 teaching and support positions from local colleges and job fairs. In the toughest to fill jobs, a position may not get staffed until the second semester of a year.

"We want the most highly-qualified teacher in the classroom for our students. We can wait until a mid-year hire, perhaps there can be a mid-year (December) graduate," she  said.

Vannatta said school administrators across Iowa, such as her brother, a principal at Clay Central-Everly, recognize the scarcity of Spanish teacher candidates, and also other specialty fields outside the core subjects.

"Certain areas are hard to find (candidates). Teaching is a wonderful profession that I encourage people to try," Vannatta said.

Busch said some people considering teaching careers might not consider Spanish since it is not in their sphere of knowledge, since they may have been raised in places with little to any diversity. She said college teaching majors may not realize there is more than instructing the Spanish language. The discipline also includes teaching about cultural pieces of Latino culture.

The Northwestern College graduate said she first picked up on the teaching shortage in her later college years after she saw less than a half-dozen people in teaching methods courses for Spanish.

"When you see only five students, you think they're aren't a lot of people going into this area," she said.

Students enrolled in disciplines with too few applicants may be eligible for both state and federal forgivable loans in college, covering up to $20,000 in tuition and other costs. But in spite of the financial incentives, Bice said he doesn't see the longstanding Spanish teacher shortage turning around "in the foreseeable future."

A native of Charter Oak, Iowa, Busch said Spanish is an important subject. She noted many firms now want bilingual employees, whether that is for interacting with patrons in a medical or retail business.

"It makes you so much more employable. It is a needed skill anymore," said Busch, the former Kami Kuhlman.

She teaches Spanish in seven of the eight periods in the Lawton-Bronson High School, and finds the job "super fulfilling."

"It is rewarding to see something that kids weren't comfortable with, start to click and understand," she said.

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Northbound lanes of I-29 reconstruction nearly finished

SIOUX CITY | With one major piece of the Interstate 29 widening and reconstruction project almost complete, the pieces to the last major phase are beginning to fall into place.

The northbound lanes from Floyd Boulevard to just past Hamilton Boulevard are nearly complete, and traffic will be switched over to the new lanes shortly after Thanksgiving.

On Tuesday, the Iowa Department of Transportation opened bids on the next step of the project, reconstruction of the southbound lanes and replacement of five bridges from Wesley Parkway to the Floyd River. Bids still must be reviewed and certified, but the apparent low bid is $41.8 million from Godbersen-Smith Construction Co. of Ida Grove, Iowa.

It was the second-to-last bid in the 11-year, $400 million project to widen I-29 to three lanes in each direction from Sergeant Bluff, through Sioux City, to the South Dakota border. Construction is wrapping up on the project's ninth year. If the recent bid is approved, it will bring the total of bids thus far, with one major bid-letting remaining, to some $373 million.

The highway's new configuration is beginning to become clearer to metro Sioux Cityans and those who travel through the city regularly, said Dakin Schultz, Iowa Department of Transportation District 3 traffic planner.

"We always heard the questions, 'What's it going to look like?' 'Where will I exit?'" Schultz said. "It's really starting to come together."

Work is concluding on the northbound lanes, and the full configuration should be open sometime in December, Schultz said. Current plans call for the Wesley Parkway exit to open Dec. 8. Traffic also will soon be able to directly access the Nebraska Street exit rather than using the Floyd Boulevard exit to get to Nebraska Street.

The entrance ramp onto northbound I-29 at Virginia Street also will open soon, replacing the former entrance at Floyd Boulevard. Once those exits and entrances are open, much of this year's work will be completed, except for some shoulder work, grading and installation of barrier rails.

"There's still going to be some things they'll be doing off to the side, but that will be the permanent configuration," Schultz said.

There will be less activity through the construction zone this winter compared to last winter, Schultz said, but construction crews were plenty active this summer from an area near the Floyd Monument to just west of Hamilton Boulevard.

Seven bridges were completed. Pavement in the traffic lanes was removed and replaced. Exits at Nebraska Street and Wesley Parkway were reconstructed, a notable improvement, especially at Nebraska Street, where a realignment now allows I-29 traffic to exit directly onto Nebraska Street as opposed to the old alignment, which dumped traffic onto Gordon Drive, forcing motorists to make a short jog onto Nebraska Street.

It's been a notable change that has improved traffic flow, Schultz said.

"I think it works real well. We expected that to function well," he said.

The direct path into downtown will provide for easier navigation for visitors, said Barbara Sloniker, Siouxland Chamber of Commerce executive vice president.

"I think what you'll see is it will be easier for retail establishments in the downtown district to direct customers to them," Sloniker said. "I think it shows our downtown better."

Depending on the contractor's plans, drivers could see some of the work on the southbound lanes begin during the winter, but work will ramp up in the spring for the final two-year push to complete the project.

Schultz said major construction of I-29 should be done in 2019, with some finishing work in the Hamilton Boulevard area wrapping up in 2020.

Congress coming back to crush of business in a fraught time

WASHINGTON — The crush of unfinished business facing lawmakers when they return to the Capitol would be daunting even if Washington were functioning at peak efficiency.

It's an agenda whose core items — tax cuts, a potential government shutdown, lots of leftover spending bills — could unravel just as easily as advance in factionalism, gamesmanship and a toxic political environment.

There's only a four-week window until a Christmas deadline, barely enough time for complicated negotiations even if December stays on the rails. And that's hardly a sure bet in President Donald Trump's capital.

Trump and congressional leaders plan a meeting Tuesday to discuss how to sidestep a shutdown and work though the legislative to-do list.

For the optimistic, it's plain that Democrats and Republicans have reasons to cooperate, particularly on spending increases for the Pentagon and domestic agencies whose budgets otherwise would be frozen. An additional round of hurricane aid should be bipartisan, and efforts to reauthorize a popular health care program for children seem to be on track.

Republicans are advancing their cherished tax cut measure under special rules that mean Senate Democrats cannot use delaying tactics. The measure passed the House just before the Thanksgiving break and moves to the Senate floor this coming week.

After the Senate GOP's failure on health care this summer, the majority party is under enormous pressure to produce a victory on taxes. Still, GOP deficit hawks such as Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona remain uneasy about the overhaul.

While Democrats are largely sidelined on taxes, they hold leverage over a mix of budget-related issues.

First, there's the need to avert a government shutdown after a temporary spending bill expires on Dec. 8. The most likely scenario, congressional aides say, is for an additional extension until Christmas. On a parallel track are talks to raise spending limits that are keeping agency budgets essentially frozen unless those caps are raised. If that happens, then negotiations could begin in earnest on a massive catchall spending measure in hopes of having it signed into law by year's end.

Taxes have gotten all the attention so far, but the showdown over a potential shutdown right before Christmas could soon take center stage. Democrats are counting on GOP fears of a holiday season closure to ensure Republican concessions during December talks.

Both sides would have to make concessions that may upset partisans in either party. Just as House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., fears a revolt on the right, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California risks an uprising on her left. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., round out the quartet of top negotiators.

"Everybody's got complicated politics. The chance of short-term failure is pretty high — short-term failure being a shutdown," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist. "But the four of them, assuming they don't want to shut the government down for a long time, are going to have to come to an accommodation."

Talks on the spending caps are stuck, however, aides say. A GOP offer to lift the Pentagon budget by more than $54 billion next year and nondefense limits by $37 billion was rejected by Democrats demanding balance between the two sides of the ledger.

Long-delayed battles over immigration and Trump's promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border are huge obstacles. Many Democrats whose votes are needed on the spending bills insist they won't vote for any legislation that includes the wall. Trump remains dead set on his $1.6 billion request for a down payment on the project.

Those same Democrats also insist that Congress must act by year's end to protect immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and whose protected status is set to lapse next year. Trump backs the idea despite issuing an executive order reversing the Obama administration protections, starting next spring. Conservatives oppose drawing in the immigration issue to legislation to keep the government running.

Hurricane relief is adding one more wrinkle.

Congress has approved more than $50 billion in aid in response to a series of devastating hurricanes. The most recent request by the White House is the largest yet at $44 billion, but it's not nearly enough to satisfy the powerful Texas delegation, which is pressing behind the scenes for more.

"Completely inadequate," said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. "We must do far more to rebuild, repair and allow Texans to return to normal as quickly as possible."

Trump is a wild card. He warmed to the idea of cutting deals with Democrats after a September pact with Schumer and Pelosi to lift the government's debt ceiling.

He promised Democratic leaders that he would sign legislation to give the young immigrants legal status — provided border security is addressed as well.

But that demand on border security came with a long list of conditions subsequently added by the White House. Among them: building his Mexico border wall, overhauling the green card system and strengthening measures against people who stay after their visas expire.

Trump has not really engaged on the year-end agenda, however, and his impulsiveness could be a liability. He almost disowned an omnibus spending bill in May after media accounts portrayed the measure as a win for Democrats.