The nationwide shortage of bilingual K-12 teachers has school systems looking beyond the United States to fill the growing demand for qualified instructors.
Districts have struggled for decades to find bilingual teachers, especially in communities where English is not the first language for many students.
Now, recent upticks in the percentage of English-language-learner students and demand for dual-language programs for their English-speaking peers have more districts tapping an already shallow talent pool.
Bilingual teachers are in especially short supply in places like Texas, where nearly 40 percent of the residents are Hispanic or Latino.
A number of school systems, including big-city districts such as Houston and Dallas, are turning to Puerto Rico and Spain to find bilingual teachers.
Increasingly, smaller Texas districts and systems from other parts of the country are taking the same approach, traveling overseas and off the U.S. mainland to fill vacancies or newly created positions.
“Schools are so hard-pressed to find [teachers] fluent in another language,” said Gabriela Uro, the director of English-language-learner policy and research at the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization of big-city school systems. “It’s a huge challenge.”
A 2013 survey by the council found that roughly half of its 67 member districts had a shortage of bilingual and ELL teachers or anticipated struggling to fill positions in the near future.
The National Association for Bilingual Education, or NABE, has advocated for a federal response to the problem.
“There’s been a lack of attention to this critical need,” said Santiago Wood, the executive director of NABE. “Every large urban district is in the same place we were 10 years ago.”
TESOL International Association, the organization for teachers who specialize in working with English-learners, expressed disappointment that the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law that reauthorizes the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, does not include specific proposals to increase the number of English-as-a-second-language and bilingual specialists in schools.
Things haven’t changed much in the two years since the Council of the Great City Schools survey. But now, more districts are recruiting internationally, Uro said.
With districts competing for a handful of capable candidates, hiring fairs can evolve into bidding wars, veteran recruiters say. Job candidates in some districts are wooed with annual stipends of $4,000 or more and similarly generous signing bonuses.
Houston’s school board this past fall boosted the annual bilingual-teacher stipend by $2,500, increasing it to $4,000, to compete with neighboring suburban districts that were offering three times as much.
“We have to be competitive, … make it appealing for people who want to come here,” said Janie Ruiz, a Houston senior recruitment manager.
Hiring bilingual teachers is more necessity than luxury. There are more than 52.6 million native and bilingual Spanish speakers in the United States, making the country second only to Mexico in that category, according to a June 2015 report by Instituto Cervantes, a nonprofit created by the Spanish government.
In Texas, as in much of the United States, school districts with 20 or more English-language learners in a single grade must offer bilingual education with a certified teacher.
In Houston, the state’s largest district, roughly one-third of the 200,000-plus students are native Spanish speakers. The district’s plan to open more dual-language schools, most of them Spanish-oriented, has also driven the demand for bilingual teachers.
Dallas, the state’s second-largest district, hires about 2,000 teachers per year on average. Among that group are between 400 and 500 bilingual instructors who earn a $3,000 annual stipend on top of their salary.
Forty-three percent of students in Dallas are English-learners. The fast-growing student population made up about 30 percent of enrollment a decade ago.
“Our [demographics] are changing, and the supply of teachers in Texas does not meet our demand,” said Meredyth Hudson, a Dallas schools human-resources executive director. “Teacher demand will keep increasing. We just have to figure out how to meet it.”
The most popular offshore-recruiting destinations for U.S. school districts are Spanish-speaking countries; the language is the most common home or first tongue of the nation’s English-language-learner students.
A 2015 analysis by the Migration Policy Institute shows that roughly 70 percent of student ELLs are Spanish-speakers. Nationwide, no other language accounts for more than 5 percent of school-age language-learners.
Puerto Rico, where the teachers are already U.S. citizens, and Spain, whose Education Ministry has established partnerships with states and districts, have emerged as the most fertile recruiting grounds.
Heading to Puerto Rico to hire teachers is much like recruiting staff in a neighboring state, said Jordan Carlton, a Dallas schools recruiting specialist.
The teachers already understand U.S. culture and can often have their salaries doubled or tripled by taking jobs in the United States, said NABE’s Wood.
Recruiters for both Dallas and Houston take multiple trips to Puerto Rico each year.
Dallas employs about 300 teachers from Puerto Rico, a number that’s doubled over the past three years because of robust recruitment on the island. The district has roughly 150 teachers from Spain working in schools. The number of hires has remained relatively steady each year because of visa limitations.
Houston has hired about 50 teachers from Spain and 10 from Puerto Rico in each of the past two years, but would like to see those numbers increase. The district does not track the total number of teachers from those countries, Ruiz said.
As a superintendent in California in the 1990s, Wood recruited teachers from Spain, Mexico, Central America, and Asia.
Recruiting internationally gives districts another option for hiring bilingual teachers and helps them get seasoned instructors, Wood said.
Spain’s Education Ministry operates more than 20 regional offices in the United States, with two in Texas. To participate in Spain’s placement program, teachers must have at least three years of experience, and they must commit to working three years in the United States. Teachers’ travel costs, and sometimes the recruiting trips for districts, are covered by the Spanish government.
The transition, however, is often not as smooth for teachers who make the move from Spain.
Adjusting to a new country and education system has led some homesick teachers to return to Spain after several weeks or midyear, school officials say, leaving recruiters to once again hire for jobs that proved difficult to fill the first time around.
Another challenge is the possible cultural disconnect between Spanish speakers from Spain and U.S. English-learners, most of whom hail from Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central America.
“You’re not going to have a Mexican kid speaking like a Spaniard,” said Uro of the Council of Great City Schools.
“But the cultural relevance and fit goes both ways. Some of the teachers get here and have trouble adjusting. What do you do then?”
Uro has witnessed the adjustment firsthand, having hosted a bilingual teacher from Spain in her home.
“It can be tough,” she said.
To ease the transition for the new international and Puerto Rican teachers, Houston and Dallas staff help their new hires find housing and transportation and help them connect with each other.
“Our goal is to set them up for success so they want to stay,” said Ruiz of the Houston schools.
“There are some who do go back. But if they’re doing well, ultimately, our kids will do well.”