Puerto Rican teachers ease ELL shortages

English-language learners among the fastest-growing demographic groups in U.S. public schools

Districts facing rising English language learner populations and teacher shortages have turned to Puerto Rico for quality bilingual teachers who don’t need a visa to work on the U.S. mainland.

Dallas ISD hired 350 teachers from Puerto Rico for 2015-16, primarily to teach elementary-level bilingual classes. Oklahoma City Public Schools started the academic year with more than a dozen new teachers from the island. And Houston-area schools will host recruiting conferences in its capital city San Juan, according to published reports.

“The number of teachers graduating through traditional programs gets smaller every year, but this pool of ELL students who need quality education continues to grow,” says Jordan Carlton, a lead recruiter for Dallas ISD. “We have to do whatever it takes to make sure we have educators in place for every student, so programs like Puerto Rico and out-of-state travel are necessary.”

ELLs are among the fastest-growing demographic groups in U.S. public schools, now representing 9 percent of all students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. About 71 percent of ELLs speak Spanish, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

About half of large city school districts have a teacher shortage for ELLs or anticipate one in the next five years, according to a 2013 study from the Council of Great City Schools.

“Bilingual teachers are in high demand,” says Staci Vesneske, chief human resources officer for Clark County School District in Las Vegas, a district of 320,000 students with an ELL population of nearly 53,000. “We’re trying to expand the reach of our recruitment effort so people who are eligible to teach in the U.S. can work here.”

Fast Fact

Nearly 16,000 teachers moved to the United States from Puerto Rico and Latin America between 2008 and 2013.

Source: Stateline analysis of American Community Survey data

The district hired one Puerto Rican teacher this year and plans to recruit more in coming months, Vesneske says.

Recruitment efforts

Dallas ISD began recruiting teachers in Puerto Rico about 10 years ago. The district of nearly 160,000 has more than 59,000 ELL students.

Dallas employs some 350 teachers from Puerto Rico, including some who have become administrators. The district’s H-1B visa program recently brought in 30 Mexican teachers who will stay for three years. Dallas ISD also takes part in the Texas-Spain Visiting Teacher Program, a J-1 visa initiative that each year brings about 75 Spanish teachers to the district for three years.

Puerto Rican teachers can enter Dallas ISD in two ways. One is the traditional teacher route, in which the district hires a candidate who already has a bachelor’s degree and a Puerto Rican teaching certificate that can be transferred to Texas.

The other is an alternative certification program for non-teachers. Candidates must hold a bachelor’s degree in any subject, and pass language and teaching assessments to travel to Dallas, where they can be certified by the district.

Due to the pressing need for bilingual staff, teachers receive a $3,000 stipend on top of their base salary, as well as $4,000 to help with relocation costs.

Teachers span all subject areas, though many end up teaching elementary school bilingual education. “Puerto Rico has provided an incredible wealth of talented teachers who are eager for opportunities,” Carlton says. “These teachers innately possess the skills needed to meet our bilingual students because they were raised bilingual as well.”

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