Faced with increasing numbers of students who speak little or no English, school districts across Florida are leaving the country to recruit bilingual teachers — from Europe to Puerto Rico to the Philippines.
Using the services of professional recruiters who traveled to England in September, Osceola County’s school district found 34 teaching candidates from across Europe who speak French, Arabic, German, Russian, Serbian and Spanish.
Orange County school officials travel to the University of Puerto Rico once a year and hire an average of 60 Spanish-speaking teachers. Those who fill positions in critical shortage areas such as math and science get extra incentives to move here: The district offers relocation assistance and temporary free lodging at Disney and Universal hotels.
Palm Beach County recruits in Spain and last year expanded its overseas efforts to include the Philippines, where it recently acquired 32 new math and science teachers.
Overseas recruiting isn’t a luxury — it’s a necessity for schools faced with a staggering influx of students who speak languages as diverse as Vietnamese and Arabic.
Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, points out that of the 66,000 new students Florida received this year, about half were foreign-born. And based on current enrollment trends, Blanton said the two areas of the state with the greatest need for bilingual teachers are metro Orlando and South Florida.
“Overseas recruiting is a relatively recent thing and it’s a sign of the times,” he said. “I can assure you we’ll be doing more and more in Florida.”
In Central Florida, the problem is especially severe in Osceola, where nearly 24 percent of students speak little or no English, according to superintendent Blaine Muse. Their numbers are rising at an astounding rate. The district grew by an average of 13 new students per day last year, and by an average of23 students per day this year — the equivalent of a new school each month, Blanton said.
In Orange County, 12 percent of students speak little or no English. In Central Florida at large, the number is eight percent.
Despite those needs, Orange officials are less concerned with filling vacancies than they are with finding teachers with strong skills — teachers who will in turn recruit other top educators into the district. That’s why having access to large numbers of Spanish-speaking candidates on recruiting trips to Puerto Rico is so productive, said senior recruiting director Javier Melendez.
Kissimmee Elementary School teacher Rossanna Diaz knows firsthand why it’s so important for non-English speakers to be placed with teachers who know how to communicate with them. At 14, she moved with her family from Puerto Rico to Kissimmee. She arrived at Gateway High School knowing almost no English. Her English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher spoke no Spanish. Eventually, Diaz became fluent. But now she’s in the same predicament. She’s teaching English to 30 students from 13 countries.
“Let’s see,” she said, pointing around her classroom. “We have Russia, Thailand, China, Bangladesh and Jerusalem. A lot of them are from South America — Peru, Chile, Venezuela, Colombia.
“I tell them ‘Hey guys, when I came here nobody helped me.’ I used to cry every single day. I made straight A’s in Puerto Rico, but when I came here I couldn’t understand anything,” she said. “If you don’t know how to speak English or pronounce a word, some people think you’re dumb. But here in this class, everybody’s in the same boat.” She is in her element with Spanish-speaking students, but she has to get more creative when dealing with Russian or Chinese kids. That’s where her ESOL training comes in, and she uses gestures and facial expressions to make up for language gaps. She admits it’s like a sophisticated version of charades. But it’s necessary because even the most ambitious recruiters concede they will never find a teaching pool as fully diverse as the students. In Osceola alone, students represent 123 countries and speak 75 languages.
With school budget cuts coming from Tallahassee, recruiters have to find creative, cost-cutting ways to fill those positions. Osceola recruiters’ travel funds have been suspended by the school district, so instead they use the services of MACS USA Inc., a company with offices in Fort Lauderdale and the United Kingdom that specializes in recruiting teachers overseas and helping them relocate to the United States.
There are no costs up front for the school district, but if Osceola ends up hiring one of the candidates referred by the company, it pays MACS a fee of at least $2,500. In turn, MACS helps the teachers obtain three-year renewable work visas sponsored by the schools that hire them, which boosts the chances that the schools’ investment will pay off for at least that length of time. MACS also does background checks on the candidates and verifies that their academic credentials will transfer to the United States and meet certification requirements here.
That kind of assistance is invaluable in helping a foreigner make a successful transition, said one teacher who is paying MACS $1,500 for help in getting a three-year visa. In exchange, MACS officials take care of time-consuming details that go into the application process, ensuring forms are filled out properly and deadlines are met. Deanna Forer, formerly of Canada, began teaching functional skills at Horizon Middle School in Kissimmee this fall on a nearly expired student visa following her graduation from college in North Dakota. Now she wants to stay.
“It’s a lot of money but they know what they’re doing so I can relax and I don’t have to worry about making it happen. It makes all the difference in terms of making it easier to get here,” Forer said.
MACS recruits in Scotland and Spain for other Florida school districts, including Hendry, Glades, St. Johns and DeSoto counties. It also works with schools in California, New Jersey, Minnesota and Michigan.
The company was a good fit for Osceola’s recruiting needs because owner Eira Taylor is familiar with the area. When she moved from England to Florida in 1992, her family settled in Kissimmee and her children attended Osceola public schools. She later moved to Fort Lauderdale. But when she meets foreign candidates who are curious about Central Florida, she tells them about nearby beaches and theme parks. She also describes an area of high growth, diversity and customs that are unheard of in England, such as police officers on campus.
It takes some of the mystery out of relocating for European teachers, many of whom are desirable candidates because they tend to have strong skills in English as well as their home language, Taylor said.
“We’re just a tiny, tiny part of the solution,” she said, “But it’s a sign of the times.”