This summer, the Palm Beach County School District’s recruiters took their oath to go the extra mile to hire minority teachers quite literally. They traveled to Spain.
From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day for a week, a principal and two district administrators set up house in Madrid and interviewed some 80 Spanish teachers. On July 23, the first of six hired arrived in town. The rest are expected this week.
The district began this summer with more than 1,000 teacher openings. As of Friday, officials had filled more than 800 of those spots. They won’t know the racial mix of the hires until after school starts Aug. 16. But those involved say recruiters talked to more minority teachers than any can remember, the first step in fulfilling promises to hire more minorities the district made after months of discussion with the Coalition for Black Student Achievement.
And though Spain stands out among the recruiting destinations, most of the search for minority teachers happened within the continental U.S.
As more teachers from the Baby Boom generation retire and the number of classrooms in South Florida continues to grow, recruiters are finding it increasingly difficult to fill openings, regardless of race.
Some shortages are regional, such as South Florida’s crunch to find teachers who can teach in two languages. Others appear to be more national, such as the pinch for teachers of math and science, said JoAnne Carrin, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.
In addition to adding to a more diverse instructional staff, the teachers from Spain fill a growing niche in language education. Four will be teaching at Gove Elementary, one of two Palm Beach County schools to adopt a dual-language approach, in which students learn half their days’ lessons in Spanish and the other half in English. A fifth will go to Pahokee Middle/Senior High, where Gove’s students can go to continue their bilingual education.
‘Nothing beats native fluency’
Despite the area’s growing Hispanic population, Principal Margarita Pinkos said she’s had a tough time finding qualified teachers as her program grows.
“Nothing beats native fluency,” said Pinkos, a native of Cuba. Many of the teachers she sees are second-generation Spanish speakers, and some lack the grammatical accuracy and the classroom vocabulary needed to carry off lessons in science or social studies in Spanish, she said.
The demand is so high that when Pinkos and the district’s two other recruiters were in Spain, they also interviewed teachers on behalf of Seminole and Miami-Dade counties. The teachers hired have signed on for three years, Pinkos said.
The trip was coordinated through the state education department and paid for by the Spanish Ministry of Education, Carrin said. The state doesn’t track the cost, Carrin said, and officials with Spain’s education ministry could not be reached.
Florida has been working with the ministry for two years, Carrin said. But Florida wasn’t the only state shopping abroad. At a dinner at the ministry, Pinkos and the Palm Beach County delegation were flanked by officials from Georgia and Louisiana.
And Florida recently made a similar arrangement with Mexico, Carrin said.
Closer to home, teams of recruiters made more than 60 trips spanning the East Coast and spots as far west as Indiana. They were looking for any outstanding teachers, but particularly blacks and Hispanics.
The itinerary included a handful of stops at historically black colleges, but, more significantly, the makeup of the recruiting teams was expanded to include ambassadors from the black community who don’t work for the school district, said Marcia Andrews, who heads the district’s recruiting efforts.
“When you have someone who already lives here and does not work for the school board say it is a good place to be, it helps,” Andrews said.
The community representatives talked about the nitty-gritty of moving to the area, such as the parks and the beach and where to get your hair done, said Eugene Herring, who works in County Commissioner Maude Ford Lee’s office and went on two recruiting trips to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.
He said he told candidates about the local alumni association and the local cost of living and housing availability. And because he is a FAMU graduate, Herring said he believed he helped the district recruiters see a larger pool of students.
If they liked the students, recruiters were allowed to hire them on the spot rather than wait for specific schools to interview and then hire them, a tool called an “unassigned contract.”
“That was real important,” Herring said. “We’re not just competing against the rest of the state, even the rest of the country. At FAMU, you were competing with four different countries recruiting there.”
Still wanted: Math teachers
Most of the remaining openings are in math, Andrews said. Math teachers for middle and high school are typically harder to find – the pool of candidates tends to run in the dozens rather than in the hundreds, as it does for elementary teachers.
To make matters more challenging, middle and high schools are being told to cut class sizes in algebra to 20. Last year, algebra class sizes averaged about 30 students. But some schools reported class sizes of as many as 35. Budget officials estimated schools would have to hire 53 new teachers to reduce class sizes.
And in addition to the 1,000 openings the district advertised this summer, officials could have to hire as many as 51 more elementary teachers to reduce the size of reading classes in 19 elementary schools
The teaching ranks weren’t the only ones depleted. The district also had to fill an unusually high number of principal vacancies prompted in part by a new early retirement plan, as well as the opening of two new schools. As of last week, personnel had placed 28 principals in new assignments and staff is working to fill three remaining vacancies in the next week.
Schools Superintendent Joan Kowal told a room full of new and veteran principals last week that part of their job is to keep an eye out for minority teachers who would make good principals so that their ranks would better reflect the community.
At the moment, about 70 percent of the district’s principals are women and 27 percent of principals are black. Only 5 percent are Hispanic.
A Florida International University study commissioned by The Palm Beach Post this year projected that Hispanics will become the county’s largest ethnic group by 2025.
”What we haven’t done is seed in our Hispanic teachers the desire to be administrators,” Kowal said.