SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO—Nearly a century ago, the United States invaded Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War and gained a strategic military stronghold for its burgeoning empire.
A second invasion is taking place on this impoverished Caribbean island, a U.S. territory about 1,000 miles southeast of Florida.
This time it’s a hunt for brain power.
In the last 15 years, officials from cities with rapidly increasing Hispanic populations, from New York to Hartford to Chicago, from Reading to Lancaster to Bethlehem, have converged on Puerto Rico to recruit professionals, mostly teachers.
Armed with salaries and benefits double and triple the standard in Puerto Rico, they seek out the best bilingual educators — worsening a chronic shortage of English teachers on this Spanish-speaking island.
“We recruit the creme de la creme of Puerto Rico,” said Paula Rivera, a recruiter for the New York City School District, which has a recruiting office at the University of Puerto Rico.
The newest academic scouts are from Allentown. Last month the city school district sent top officials to San Juan to meet with Puerto Rican educators at three major universities and the island’s Department of Education.
District officials say they were forced on the trip by the nagging and somewhat embarrassing fact that Hispanics make up 34 percent of their students, but less than 2 percent of their teaching and administrative staff. And despite efforts to find qualified Hispanic educators, the gap is not closing.
“It’s so important for Allentown to do this now,” said Superintendent Diane Scott, who visited the island for two days in January with her top assistant, Ray Erb Jr.
Scott’s dilemma rings familiar for many U.S. schools trying to educate droves of Hispanic students with only a handful of Hispanic teachers and administrators.
Her trip south in the footsteps of other head-hunting American educators raises questions about the need and effectiveness of such cross-cultural recruiting efforts.
* Why, for example, must school districts search for qualified Latino educators more than 1,000 miles away when needy, underemployed Latinos in their own backyards are multiplying?
* Are school districts giving qualified Latino educators in the states a fair shot?
* What effect will the exodus of professionals have on the island’s public school system, which fails to graduate half its students and can’t afford substitute teachers or, in some cases, supplies as basic as chalk and toilet paper?
* Are U.S. school districts engaging in a kind of new imperialism, an intellectual imperialism that steals many of Puerto Rico’s best and brightest while leaving others to weather the island’s educational crisis?
Or are they simply seeking racial equity? Scott, defending her trip, says it will help create a fresh sense of cultural diversity in a Lehigh Valley school system not particularly known for tolerance.
“We have teachers who go and actually want to stay in schools that are
(largely) Hispanic,” Scott said, sitting at a table with a half-dozen leaders from the island’s Department of Education.
“There are others who don’t understand at all. They can’t understand why students are not learning. They don’t realize there are cultural differences and they treat them as negatives rather than differences.”
Some Puerto Rican education officials, including those who met Scott, welcome recruiters. They point out that the island’s universities graduate more teachers than there are jobs on native soil, and that the recruiters have given many teachers a chance at a higher standard of living.
And they hope the northward stream of teachers will help make life easier on young Hispanics coping with a strange culture in the states.
“It’s mixed emotions,” said Renan Soto Soto, president of the Federation of Teachers in Puerto Rico, a professional association.
“They are luring the best teachers, the best talent, and that really slows us down because we have to start all over again preparing someone else to take his place or her place. But on the other hand, we understand a person has the right to a better life.”
THE NEED FOR DIVERSITY
When Scott and Erb landed at the San Juan airport five weeks ago in 75-degree weather, they had little time to take in the tropical splendor. After all, they were carrying a lot of baggage.
Consider: the percentage of Hispanic students in the district has more than doubled in the last decade to more than 5,000 this year, and their academic success as a group has been dismal.
Hispanics in the Allentown School District drop out at a rate more than double their white classmates. They are suspended from classes at a disproportionately higher rate than whites. They score 10 percentiles lower on standardized tests of academic performance.
Of the school district’s 948 teachers and administrators, only 17 are Latino. There are more schools in the district — 23 — than there are Latino professionals, and some schools with a third or more of Hispanic students have not one Hispanic educator.
“We’ve had very few, if any,” applications and “next to no hires,” Erb said.
To correct the imbalance, frustrated Allentown school officials say they have visited recruiting fairs, colleges and other cities including New York in search of qualified Latino teachers.
Everywhere they went, however, they battled other head-hunters for the small number of qualified Hispanics — not just from big city school systems, but from the private business sector as well.
They say they also had to cope with state bureaucratic stumbling blocks that make it difficult for some Puerto Rican professionals to get teaching certification.
Despite the urgency, Allentown officials decided to take a long-term approach rather than entering the island market for Hispanics head-on. They proposed teacher exchanges and joint staff training programs, and they suggested linking Lehigh Valley students via computer to their Puerto Rican counterparts.
During her visit, Scott assured her hosts she didn’t intend to abscond with the island’s best teachers, that Allentown was aware of Puerto Rico’s concern about what some refer to as the “brain drain.”
Her hosts, including Undersecretary of Education Isidra Albino, seemed to respond warmly. They provided access to top government officials and academic deans at leading universities. They gave them lunch and use of a chauffeur-driven van. They spoke English so that Scott and Erb could understand; business on the island usually is conducted in Spanish, although both Spanish and English are the official languages.
“We believe this is just the first step of many steps over many years,” Scott said.
Scott interviewed no prospective candidates on the trip, but she passed out dozens of professionally-produced brochures that prominently feature district salaries.
Experienced educators like University of Puerto Rico professor Carmen Alicea marveled at salaries that started above $ 31,000 and ranged past $ 60,000. Teachers in Puerto Rico earn as little as $ 12,000 and rarely exceed $ 20,000 even with advanced degrees.
“Ave Maria!” exclaimed Sylvia Santiago, the dean of education, as she scanned the numbers.
BATTLE FOR EDUCATORS
School systems such as Allentown, striving for racial balance between students and staff, are taking part in what has become a stealthy, even fearsome competition for bilingual Hispanics.
Judith Malick, director of personnel for the Reading Area School District, says three of six Hispanics the district recruited from Puerto Rico were lost to suburban school districts offering better salaries.
Two other Hispanics who taught at Reading schools quit to take high-paying executive positions at banks. Malick said the competition is so intense that sister school districts can’t be trusted. She refused to speak in detail about a Latino recruit she found recently for fear that the woman would be stolen by Allentown.
“We sort of trade war stories about who stole whom from whom,” Malick said.
Seven years after Reading adopted a policy requiring equal ratios of Hispanic students and staff, Hispanic educators comprise just 4 percent of the staff in a district where Hispanics account for 40 percent of the student body.
“We’d have to hire every single Hispanic teacher in Pennsylvania to meet that goal,” Malick said.
In 1993-94, only 373 of the 102,126 teachers in Pennsylvania’s public schools were Hispanic. That’s .003 percent.
The New York City School District — whose city is home to the highest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the states — began recruiting in Puerto Rico more than 15 years ago and established its own office there in 1988. Recruiters bring back about 100 bilingual teachers every year, officials said.
Chicago has the second largest concentration of Puerto Ricans. On one recruiting trip, Chicago school officials brought back 80 teachers, 42 on another, said Rafael Miranda, the district’s assistant director in recruitment and certification.
Many others have joined New York and Chicago in recruiting on the island.
“One person we offered a job to also had offers from Clark County, Nevada; Chicago, Prince Georges County, Maryland; and Milwaukee,” said Stan Schaub, of the Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools.
Smaller school districts are sometimes outgunned in the teacher trade.
Officials from the Lancaster School District said they interviewed dozens of candidates in Puerto Rico two years ago but found none willing to come to a relatively rural enclave where cars have to stop for horses and buggies.
IMPACT ON THE ISLAND
Some Puerto Rican academics say the North American push for bilingual teachers and other professionals has robbed the island of some of its most gifted people. Thousands of professionals leave the island every year. The latest statistics available from the Puerto Rico Planning Board show that 7,139 professionals left in 1991.
One-quarter to one-third of all professionals who leave are teachers, studies have shown. But nurses, doctors, technicians, engineers, lawyers and accountants have also left in large numbers.
“The quality of life has deteriorated to such a point that what you have leaving is professional talent,” said Soto of the Federation, which represents 8,800 of the island’s 35,000 public educators.
The cost of living is also higher than in the states, said Edna Malloy, vice president of Tierra del Sol, a real estate company in San Juan. That’s because food and many other items such as cars are imported, she said. Rents also are about 10 percent higher.
According to the 1990 census, 59 percent of Puerto Ricans live in poverty. That’s more than double the level of Mississippi, the poorest state. Many teachers moonlight in fast-food restaurants or gas stations to make ends meet.
The flight of teachers has left a critical shortage of English language teachers on the island. Of more than 10,000 English instructors in Puerto Rican schools, 6,000 are not certified by the island’s Department of Education to teach the subject, said Juan Rodriguez, director of the English program in the island’s Department of Education.
At times teachers who are paid to help failing students with remedial math and reading end up teaching English, or educators who can barely speak English cover the classes, sometimes teaching the language in Spanish, university educators said.
“Once our teachers are offered an opportunity (to go to the states), they just say goodbye to us and move away,” Rodriguez said.
Leticia Rivera-Harp, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary in Bethlehem, did just that. After 14 years of teaching English in Puerto Rico, she left enthusiastically when recruiters from Bethlehem came calling in 1987.
Now she’s married, owns a home, earns almost three times what she was making in Puerto Rico and is well on her way to achieving the American dream.
“I guess this is my home for now,” Rivera-Harp said.
Seven of nine teachers that were recruited from Puerto Rico, including Rivera-Harp, remain in the district today, Bethlehem officials said. District officials helped them find housing and introduced them to people at churches and community organizations.
“We didn’t just bring them in and drop them. We really worked with them,” said Iris Cintron, the Bethlehem district’s coordinator of minority affairs and state and federal projects.
But after reaching into the Caribbean for 15 years, U.S. school districts have not found nearly enough people like Rivera-Harp.
Bethlehem Area School District, which first recruited in Puerto Rico in 1987, is still far from attaining an acceptable ratio of Hispanic teachers to students. The district’s professional staff is 4.43 percent Hispanic, compared to 21 percent of the students.
Lancaster’s Hispanic student body has reached 39 percent while the staff remains about 4 percent Latino.
Large urban districts haven’t fared much better. In New York, more than a third of the students are Hispanic, but Hispanic teachers made up only 11.3 percent of the staff in 1992-93, the latest statistic available. Chicago’s teaching force is 8 percent Hispanic, its student body 30 percent.
Why haven’t recruiting programs been more successful?
“I got homesick,” said Pedro Gomez, a teacher at Cecilio Lebron Ramos High School in the seaside town of Patillas, about an hour south of San Juan.
In 1986, Gomez packed his family and moved to Chicago to teach English at a city high school, lured by what seemed like a lucrative new life.
But after two years, Gomez said he was feeling alienated and separated from his native culture. He wasn’t used to the harsh winters of the American heartland. His father, back home, was ill.
Gomez also wasn’t accustomed to discrimination. He said his teen-age daughter had problems getting along with a teacher who he felt did not understand her.
“At the end of the school year, I jumped into a plane and came back to Puerto Rico,” Gomez said, sitting in the director’s office at Cecilio Lebron Ramos High School, where he spent the day teaching English.
Gomez’ experience is not unique. Other Hispanics who leave for the mainland, even though they are bilingual, say they have difficulty adjusting to a foreign culture and a new environment.
And for every bilingual Puerto Rican like Gomez, there are others who want to come to the states but find their way barred because they don’t know English well enough. Many U.S. school districts turn away recruits because they can’t pass certification tests to teach.
After two decades as a professional educator in the states, Carlos Lopez has a seasoned perspective on the Puerto Rican teaching experience. A former educator in the Allentown, Bethlehem and Southern Lehigh school districts, he is principal of McCaskey High School in Lancaster. He still remembers getting his last teaching paycheck in Puerto Rico — part of it went to buy pencil sharpeners for his classroom.
Now, he worries less about school supplies than the collective sensitivity of his adopted land toward outsiders.
“There were times when I would go into a store and have a security guard walking behind me because I was a minority,” he said. “They thought I was going to steal something. That’s a reality of Bethlehem and Allentown.”
The Lehigh Valley has not exactly rolled out a red carpet for Hispanics. Some say that, perhaps more than anything, has prevented local schools from building diverse staffs that better reflect student populations.
In a report nearly two years ago, the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs found that Hispanics living in Allentown were lagging behind the rest of the community in almost every measure of quality of life.
From schools to courtrooms to health-care agencies, the report found problems for Latinos. They’re underrepresented in city government. They face language barriers in courtrooms, and some non-Hispanic staff members in the city school district are insensitive to Hispanic students, it said.
Allentown’s new “English Only” law, which limited the information distributed in other languages, was seen by many as anti-Hispanic. Bethlehem Area School District replaced its bilingual program two years ago with an English immersion program, which also created some rifts.
When news of Scott’s recruiting trip to Puerto Rico reached the community, the school district was deluged with calls and letters saying the area has enough Hispanics.
“Taxpayer dollars to do this?” asked one caller about the trip that cost the district $ 2,200.
Someone mailed Scott a note scrawled in blue magic marker: “We don’t need any more Chops!” (Chops is a derisive term for Hispanics).
Some argued that Scott should invest the district’s money and time in encouraging promising Hispanic students in Allentown to go to college and become teachers.
“There is no need to use taxpayers’ money to go to Puerto Rico,” said Evelyn Bayo Antonsen, president of the Latino Leadership Congress, a coalition of area agencies representing Latinos.
Antonsen, who teaches at Jefferson Elementary School in Allentown, said the district also should assist local Latino professionals in obtaining certification to become teachers. Scott, she said, should visit Harrisburg, rather than Puerto Rico, to lobby the state education department to change its certification requirements.
Antonsen resigned last week to accept an assistant principal’s job in the Harrisburg School District. She sought a permanent principal’s job in Allentown, but was turned down more than once. Recently she was offered a temporary assistant principal’s job at Raub Middle School.
Scott said she received support from others, including Trexler Middle School teacher Terri Bartholomew, who called her with interest in going to Puerto Rico in an exchange program. Members of the Allentown School Board unanimously approved the trip.
“Five years from now, people will be appreciative that we took this step,” Scott said.
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FACTS ABOUT PUERTO RICO
* Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory that lies 1,000 miles southeast of the tip of Florida. It’s the smallest of the four major islands that form the Greater Antilles. The island, which is about half the size of New Jersey, is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south.
* Mean temperature on the island is 77 degrees.
* The island was ceded to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were recognized as U.S. citizens in 1917.
* About 3.4 million people live on the island. More than 2 million have migrated to the United States mainland.
* 58.9 percent of the people on the island live at or below poverty level, according to the 1990 census. Per capita income in 1992 was $ 6,360.
* The Governor of Puerto Rico declared Spanish and English joint official languages on Jan. 28, 1993.
* Although they are U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can’t vote for president. The island has a representative in U.S. Congress, but that person has no vote except in committees.
* Puerto Rican residents are covered by the U.S. Constitution and most federal laws. Puerto Ricans living on the island do not pay federal income tax. The island’s education is subsidized with federal dollars.
Morning Call staff writer David Herzog contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: State law makes it tough for some Puerto Ricans to teach here.