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Teachers Board of Ed goes to the Caribbean to seek recruits

Kingston, Jamaica-They came from across the island of Jamaica, schoolteachers, principals and administrators, some with as many as 30 years experience teaching English, math and science-skills that are in great demand in the New York City public school system.

In an overwhelming response to the Board of Education’s ongoing international teacher recruitment drive, nearly 700 applicants-mostly women-turned out at the University of the West Indies Mona campus in Kingston, the island’s capital, to fill out applications for a two-year teaching stint that the board is offering to eligible Caribbean teachers.

“We’ve seen really qualified and quality candidates,” said Caryl Cohen, director of recruitment in the Board of Education’s newly created Chancellor’s Center for Recruitment and Professional Development. Cohen told the teachers, “You’re welcome. You’re wanted. We’re here because we need you.”

Those who received board commitment letters left with smiling faces last week. Others, told the skills they had were not needed, were dejected.

Many were eager to teach in a new environment, broaden their skills and earn more than the $4,800 to $7,200 a year most teachers earn in Jamaica based on their experience. In New York, they will be paid about $32,000 to $44,000.

Some were facing layoffs in Jamaica. But many said they wanted to help immigrant Caribbean students who score low and are blamed for discipline problems in New York City public schools.

“I have knowledge of the social ills,” said Franciska Lorman, a teacher with 10 years experience in early childhood education, who also has social-work, probation and nursing skills. “It’s not a biological problem. It’s more of an environmental problem.”

Math teacher Milton Francis said, “If we can help turn the tide, it will be a blessing for them and us.”

The teachers are needed to help fill 12,000 vacancies citywide that are anticipated as baby boomers among the system’s 80,000 teachers reach retirement age, and as the board seeks to decrease class size and expand the international pre-kindergarten programs.

About 600 Jamaican teachers are expected to arrive in New York in August to start work in September. An additional 500 Caribbean teachers were hired during a previous recruiting drive in Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago. Most will be assigned to middle schools.

Processing teaching diplomas, college degrees, transcripts, resumes and good conduct letters kept a 17-member recruiting team from the Board of Education and from city school districts-including Districts 27 and 29 in Queens-busy evaluating the flood of prospective Jamaican recruits from 9 a.m. to past 10 p.m. Thursday, and most of Friday and Saturday.

New York officials are targeting teachers with five or more years experience in math, English, sciences, early childhood education and Spanish-subjects in which students are doing poorly in school districts with a high percentage of Caribbean students, recruiters said.

But a major reason for the push to bring in Caribbean teachers is a need to bridge a language gap that is viewed as a roadblock to the scholastic achievement of many immigrant Caribbean students.

“I’m sick of hearing that it’s the Caribbean children that are not doing well, that it’s the Jamaican children that have become the behavior problem, ending up in juvenile detention and joining the youth gangs,” City Councilwoman Una Clarke (D-Brooklyn) said in an interview in New York.

Concern that students with discipline problems might end up in the criminal justice system and be deported, spurred Clarke, a Jamaican immigrant and former teacher and city consultant on day care, and George Irish, head of the Caribbean Research Center at Medgar Evers College, to push for teacher recruitment in the Caribbean.

Clarke’s council district includes Community School District 17, which has the highest number of immigrant Caribbean students in the nation.

“Bringing teachers more closely connected to the students themselves, the teachers would understand the behaviors of the children, the discipline they were used to and the language, too,” Clarke said. “And it would be easier to get these teachers to engage parents in the system.”

“I know of many students who were beaten up because of how they spoke,” said Robert Antoine, one of the Board of Education recruiters who traveled to Kingston and a former teacher at Tilden High School in Brooklyn.

Although the new Caribbean hires would not be assigned to teach only Caribbean students, their presence in the schools would make a difference, said Brenda Steele, deputy superintendent for instruction at the board’s recruitment center. She told the teachers, “It’s important for them to know there are people who are from their own cultural background.”

But some parents in Jamaica are concerned that the hiring away of teachers off the island perpetrates a brain drain.

“It will reflect negatively on many Jamaicans,” said Philip Campbell, a civil servant and father of a 7-year-old girl. “Young prospective teachers who would have given their all are seeing greener pastures.”

A clerk at the Hilton Hotel and mother of two young children, said, “I’m happy for our teachers because they were having difficulty finding employment.

But I’m sad for the country and the kids.”

In government circles, and even among teacher advocates, however, the consensus is that there is a surplus of teachers and that recruitment will be beneficial for the island, the teachers and New York schools. It was felt that many will send home foreign exchange dollars and return with more knowledge.

Burchell Whiteman, Jamaica’s minister of education, said, “In a system where we have 22,000 teachers, losing a very small percentage of them, we would not have lost all our best teachers.”

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