By Tim Henderson, Stateline.org (TNS)
WASHINGTON — Even with 16 years of teaching experience and two master’s degrees, Nathalia Moreno had a hard time finding a new job in the financially stressed schools where she lived in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Her prospects brightened when she began considering working in schools on the mainland, where bilingual teachers are in high demand. She got an offer from Florida, but took a job teaching physical education in Las Vegas where recruiters were more persistent.
It’s worth being persistent to hire a good teacher, especially one like Moreno who speaks English and Spanish, said Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer for Las Vegas’ Clark County school system.
“It’s not uncommon for our recruiters to follow up two or three times to say, ‘Hey, we really want you to finish your application,'” Vesneske said.
Growing demand for bilingual teachers, fed by increasing numbers of Spanish-speaking public school students, is forcing local school districts to get creative in their recruiting. A major target for their efforts is Puerto Rico: the teachers, already U.S. citizens, don’t require a visa if they decide to leave the island and its struggling economy to go work on the mainland.
Oklahoma City Public Schools, for instance, started the school year in August with more than a dozen new teachers from Puerto Rico, including Iriana Sanchez, a kindergarten teacher who left because “it’s hard to get a job there, and here I feel very welcome.”
Houston-area schools are organizing recruiting conferences locally and in San Juan. The Dallas Independent School District, which already recruits in Puerto Rico, is this year looking to Mexico and Spain for candidates, while starting a training program for local bilingual professionals to become teachers.
“As bilingual programs in Dallas and across the state continue to grow, the need for bilingual teachers increases exponentially each year,” said Jordan Carlton, who heads a recruiting team for the district.
A smaller share of U.S. college students is getting education degrees. Relatively low pay and declining job benefits can make the profession look less attractive. State certification of teachers varies widely, and states don’t always recognize each other’s teacher certifications.
A 2013 study by the Council of the Great City Schools found that about half of large city school districts either have a shortage of teachers for so-called English Language Learners, or ELLs, or anticipate one in the next five years.
“This makes recruitment a challenge,” Carlton said, “and requires us to look at all possible alternatives for gaining the educators that we need.”
Students who speak another language and need help learning English are one of the fastest growing populations in public schools. Using the latest data available, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the number of ELLs rose 6 percent between 2008 and 2013.
ELLs make up 9 percent of all public school students, the center found. Their share of the student population ranges from less than 1 percent in West Virginia to 23 percent in California.
About 71 percent of them speak Spanish, according to information compiled this year by the Migration Policy Institute, although in some states more students speak another foreign language.
In Montana, for instance, German-speaking students outnumber Spanish-speakers. In Vermont, it’s Nepali. In Maine, it’s Somali. Lincoln, Nebraska, budgeted $1.2 million for more bilingual teachers and support staff this year after 866 students needing services arrived, mostly from Iraq and Mexico.
Some states have responded to the growing numbers of ELLs in their classrooms by requiring bilingual education. Bilingual education advocates say that learning subjects partially in a student’s native language, while also studying English, increases comprehension and brings up standardized test scores, including those required by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated that annual testing be conducted in English.
Even in some English-only education states, such as Arizona and Massachusetts, some bilingual teachers may be hired because they’re considered well qualified to teach ELLs under the English immersion programs required there. In Arizona, bilingual classes are possible if parents sign waivers.
“There’s growing awareness in the states that fluency in the original language is helpful for learning English,” said Micah Ann Wixom, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States. “The states are very much aware that the number of these students is growing and they’re actively seeking out ways to help them.”
Connecticut, Illinois, Texas, New York and New Jersey are under special pressure to find bilingual teachers because they mandate bilingual education plans in schools where there are concentrations of a single foreign language, said Julie Sugarman, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.
This year Connecticut’s General Assembly formed a working group on expanding bilingual education because of a 50 percent increase in demand for services in a decade, combined with some of the nation’s highest gaps in achievement among ELLs in subjects such as eighth-grade math and reading.
To address teacher shortages, the group recommended streamlining the process for certifying teachers for classrooms, which varies across the states. It also recommended allowing teachers with credentials from other states to teach in Connecticut schools.
It’s a nationwide issue, according to the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program. “Different state-by-state certification processes and requirements limit teachers’ mobility, and stop the flow of bilingual teachers from areas with little demand for them to areas with great need for them,” a post on the center’s Ed Central blog concluded.
The bilingual teacher shortage comes against the backdrop of a general teacher shortage in many states. A federal report shows teacher shortages in many areas for math and science, as well as special education.
Vesneske of Clark County, Nev., said many potential teachers were frightened away from entering the profession by layoffs after the recession.
“It always seemed like maybe not a high-paying job, but a dependable job, and then with the layoffs it didn’t seem too dependable anymore,” said Vesneske, whose district has hired 1,800 teachers this year and still needs more.
In Wisconsin, State Superintendent Tony Evers said in his State of Education address last month that the number of teacher licenses had dropped 12 percent in two years, and 2,000 fewer students were preparing to be teachers than there were three years ago.
“Good people are leaving the profession and young people are choosing not to become teachers,” he said.
In Minnesota, teacher licenses are down 7 percent in the last five years according to a state report. In Illinois, teacher licenses have grown by 2 percent a year since 2006, but the state still can’t fill some jobs, including 76 bilingual education jobs, according to a state report issued in March.
Financial troubles in Puerto Rico have made the island territory a more tempting spot for recruiting. Moreno, the PE teacher in Las Vegas, said she’d been looking for a better teaching job for years.
“Nobody wanted to pay me. They kept saying I was overqualified,” Moreno said. “In Puerto Rico, it’s really hard. They’re closing a lot of schools. I was really struggling financially.”
Almost 16,000 working teachers moved to the states from Puerto Rico and Latin America between 2008 and 2013, with about two-thirds of them going to Arizona, California, Florida, New Jersey, New York and Texas, according to a Stateline analysis of American Community Survey data from the Minnesota Population Center.
Recruiters are drawn to Puerto Rico for more than teachers, however. Other government agencies and the private sector also need bilingual staff, particularly social workers.
“There is definitely a great need for Latino social workers who are bilingual Spanish speakers,” said Migdalia Reyes, a professor of social work at San Jose State University. “Many social work schools on the East Coast have historically recruited students from Puerto Rico to their programs.”
Photo: Despite all the Spanish speakers in the U.S., some districts are going to Puerto Rico — as well as other Caribbean areas — to recruit bilingual teachers. Emily/Flickr