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Bilingual teachers wanted

Boston schools recruiting in Puerto Rico

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 18, 2008

SAN JUAN - As a balmy breeze fanned the palm fronds dotting the college campus, the man in the seersucker suit and leather flip flops pointed to a sheet filled with numbers and launched into his pitch for Boston public schools.

"Starting salary for you would be right here, at $44,000," recruiter Alvin Cooper told a 22-year-old aspiring elementary school teacher.

She blinked, then smiled. The figure was more than double what she would make here in Puerto Rico.

Cooper and three colleagues spent three days last week scouring the Caribbean island for bilingual teachers, from a prestigious university to a rundown middle school, from a big city to an outpost tropical town, and then went to great lengths to lure them to Boston as part of a fledgling initiative to boost Latino student achievement in the city.

"We need you, quite honestly," Cooper told dozens of candidates over and over again.

Boston recruiters were looking for educators to teach English as a second language, as well as math, science, and special education to address a national shortage of qualified teachers in those subjects and to help the city's fast-growing Latino student population, many who are not fluent in English.

Over the next five years, they hope to hire more than 40 new teachers for Spanish-speaking students. Their goal during this trip was five teachers. Next year, it will be 10. Amid tight times, they are conscious of costs. Their flights, accommodations at a Howard Johnson Hotel, and other expenses totaled $3,300.

Their mission took them beyond a job fair at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras to an overcrowded public middle school in Santurce, a working-class Dominican enclave in San Juan. They trekked four hours across the island to a tiny Adventist university tucked among banana trees and unmarked roads in the hillside of Mayagüez. At those stops and in other meetings in San Juan, they forged ties with a dozen education officials and community activists who they hoped would funnel promising candidates their way.

"The success of recruiting people to leave their island and their families hinges on a lot more than setting up a table and passing out brochures at a job fair," said Nydia Mendez, director of Boston's program for English language learners, who, having grown up in Puerto Rico, took part in the trip.

More than a third of Boston's 56,000 students are Latino; more than 40 percent of them are learning English as a second language. And since the state eliminated bilingual education in 2002, these students have fallen further behind.

Latino students with limited English skills are nearly four times more likely to drop out than white students, according to state statistics. In Boston, state test scores also show a persistent gap between Latino and white student achievement. More than half of Latino 10th-graders are not proficient in math and reading, according to 2007 MCAS results, compared with a quarter of white students.

Scholarly research has shown that bilingual teachers from culturally similar backgrounds can better relate to these students and help them stay in school, but only 9 percent of Boston's teachers are Latino. This school year, 20 percent of the teaching positions that remained unfilled in September were for English as a second language programs, leaving those students to begin the year with unqualified substitutes, school officials said.

But Boston had competition at the job fair, begun by the University of Puerto Rico last year in response to the growing demand for Spanish-speaking teachers in the rest of the United States. Because the island is a commonwealth of the United States, Puerto Ricans are American citizens and therefore do not face immigration hurdles.

Near Cooper's booth, in a shaded courtyard, were representatives from 16 other public school systems, including Chicago, Denver, and Dallas. While most of those recruiters simply worked the job fair, Boston's delegation dashed around the island when it was done. Their timing could not have been better, the situation more conducive to the recruitment pitch.

The island's 42,000 public school teachers recently suspended a 10-day strike over meager salaries, crowded classrooms, and deplorable facilities. Many Puerto Rican schools are so poor that teachers say they must supply their own paper and chalk and paint their own classrooms. School buildings are often run down, with leaking roofs, windows that don't open, and deteriorating bathrooms.

"The conditions you'd be working in Puerto Rico, it's frustrating," said Teresa Rodriguez, a 55-year-old teacher.

Rodriguez has 14 years of experience, mostly in private schools. She had heard Mendez's and Cooper's cellphone numbers broadcast on a radio ad about Boston's efforts and drove an hour-and-a-half from her home in the beach town of Luquillo to be interviewed in San Juan.

During the 90-minute interview, Mendez took care not just to ask the veteran teacher how she would motivate students, engage families, and manage disruptive students. She cut to the chase.

"How serious are you about leaving your beautiful Puerto Rico and moving to the US?" Mendez asked.

Rodriguez responded candidly. She had divorced two years ago, she said, and it was time for a new phase in her life. "I'm not that young," she said. "I'd like to do what I've always wanted."

Before securing a permanent teaching post, recruits must pass Massachusetts teacher licensing test, which Boston plans to begin offering in Puerto Rico next year.

Mendez urged Rodriguez to take the test and promised to introduce her to Boston's Puerto Rican community when she visits in July.

Mendez and her team are unabashed when it comes to scouting teachers. They will even recruit other recruiters and university administrators. Their rationale: Get them thinking about Boston, because one never knows what the future could bring.

En route to a meeting in Santurce, Mendez made an impromptu visit to a neighborhood middle school, a three-story lemon-colored concrete building with white shuttered windows. After charming the security guard into giving them a tour, Mendez tried to recruit the school's English teacher, a Puerto Rican who spent her childhood in Connecticut.

The woman said she did not want to leave her two grown sons, whose handsome pictures she proudly shared. Undeterred, Mendez tore a pink Post-it note from a pad on the teacher's desk and scribbled her contact information.

"Call me," she said. Then she asked for the teacher's phone number.

Mendez knows that persuading teachers to leave the island often takes much more than a job offer. For the right candidate, Boston recruiters say, they are willing to solve any problem that stands in the way, be it housing, scrounging up money to take the state's teacher licensing test, or finding jobs or graduate school opportunities for the teachers' spouses. The school system is applying for grants to help with travel and moving expenses and appealing to Boston's Puerto Rican community to help teachers make the transition.

"If you have a problem, we'll take care of it," Cooper told Michael A. Cabrera Rivera, a 26-year-old teacher in San Juan. "We want to get you up to Boston right away."

With the young man, Cooper struck gold. Cabrera Rivera, a former actor, played a California teenager in a Puerto Rican sitcom. He speaks fluent English and Spanish, directs a school theater program, writes an education blog, and, best of all, has experience working with children with special needs.

Although he has never lived on the mainland, Cabrera Rivera said he is ready to pack his bags. His family, though, is hesitant to see him go because he is the oldest of three.

"But they know I need to do this," he said. "They know I'll be better off there as a teacher."

Promising candidates who want master's degrees are funneled into the school system's free one-year teacher training program, which comes with an $11,000 living stipend, a master's degree from the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and a three-year teaching contract. The aspiring teachers would also work in a Boston school with a mentor during their year of studies.

Of the 70 candidates Boston recruiters met during their trip, four would be recommended for teaching jobs starting in September. They would still need to be interviewed by principals and their hiring committees, who get the final say. More than 20 others are being encouraged to apply for the master's degree program.

The future of Boston's Latino students depends on these teachers, the recruiters believe.

"We've had so many kids who've fallen through the cracks since 2002 that this is the only way to recoup them," said Lucia Mayerson-David, a UMass-Boston professor helping with the recruitment. "If you can get teachers who can relate to these kids, the kids are going to stay in school."

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.


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