Last year, Darlin Cortico Rosario, an English teacher in the Dominican Republic, showed up at a virtual job fair being run by Hartford Public Schools. At the end of the fair, he and three other teachers stayed back to ask whether the city had a program that would allow them to come teach in the United States.
“They asked a lot of great questions and they were really enthusiastic and passionate,” said Daisy Torres, the district’s director of services for multilingual learners, world and dual-language programs.
The district ultimately partnered with the International Alliance Group to sponsor the four teachers, who had gone to school together. Cortico Rosario, 26, moved to Hartford in August with his wife and 3-year-old son.
He told CT Examiner that he had participated in a J-1 visa program in the summers during his university years, when he would travel to the U.S. to work in hotels or restaurants. He said he saw the chance to teach in the U.S. as a great opportunity.
“When I saw that I had all the things they ask for just to be part of the program, I said, ‘Okay, it will be a great opportunity for me — first, because of my academic knowledge, my academic growth. [It] will be great for that. And then to have this experience – come here to the United States, teach and improve my knowledge in the English language,’” he said.
The district partnered with the International Alliance Group to sponsor the four teachers, who had gone to school together. Cortico Rosario moved to Hartford in August with his wife and three-year-old son.
Hartford isn’t the only district that has been looking outside of the continental U.S. for teachers to fill vacancies. New Haven has hired multiple teachers from Spain, and Middletown set aside $8,000 in its budget this year to contract with the International Alliance Group, an organization that sponsors visas and recruits teachers from abroad.
Jason Hammond, the co-founder of the group , said the organization began about three years ago and that demand has “boomed.” So far, he said, the organization has placed about 400 teachers in 30 states across the country, and they plan to place an additional 400 teachers in U.S. schools next year. The teachers are able to stay in the U.S. for five years.
Hammond said it used to be mainly rural school districts who looked to recruit teachers using a J-1 visa, both to fill shortages and facilitate a cultural exchange. But now, he said, urban and suburban districts are also looking to use the visas.
“There’s just such a demand for bilingual and trilingual teachers, because parents are demanding that schools provide opportunities for their students to maintain their mother language or to learn a second language because of the economic advantage that comes with being bilingual or multilingual,” Hammond said.
The colleges and schools of education were not producing teachers fast enough, he added, to keep up with the immediate shortage of teachers nationwide.
“The only option is to go outside of the U.S. to help us meet that,” he said.
A need for bilingual teachers
Hartford is the only district that IAG has worked with so far in Connecticut, Hammond said, because of the challenges of being approved to do business in the state.
“Teachers are identified nationally as an area where there is a shortage of qualified people in the U.S.,” said Harry Snyder, the human resources manager for Middletown Public Schools. “And so if you are forward thinking, you’re going to explore other options that broaden your recruiting blueprint.”
Looking abroad isn’t the only option. Norwich schools said while they don’t currently hire internationally, the district was looking at a potential partnership with Puerto Rico to attract bilingual teachers and for teaching English as a second language.
Hartford already has such a program with Puerto Rico, called Paso a Paso (“Step by Step”). The district started the program during the pandemic and last year recruited 14 teachers from the island to work in the district.
Torres said it made sense to recruit from Puerto Rico since, as part of the United States, it would not require a visa sponsorship. According to Torres, 55 percent of Hartford students identify as Latino – the majority from the Caribbean — and about one in five are non-native English speakers.
“These are certified teachers, many of whom have connections and family here on the mainland. So it’s a nice natural partnership that we continue to have with the universities over at the island,” Torres said.
Hammond said that the teachers IAG recruits must have two years of experience, and are then given professional development training and assistance with finding housing and transportation.
Supporters of the program say that bringing in teachers internationally can help fill teaching positions for bilingual education and world languages, both of which are shortage areas across the state. The majority of students who speak a language other than English are Spanish-speakers.
Pedro Mendia, English Language Learner programs director for New Haven Public Schools, said the district first recruited teachers from Spain about seven or eight years ago. Last year, he said, the district sponsored a group of 12 more teachers from Spain to work in the district’s dual language programs, 10 of whom stayed. A few of the teachers, he said, also teach math and technology at the high school level. They are now looking for 12 more candidates to come and teach in the district.
Mendia said the majority of the district’s dual language programs were at the elementary level, but that they would also like to offer some courses at the high school level. Math, science and technology in particular were shortage areas for the district, he said.
Torres also noted that the teachers from Puerto Rico did not just teach language — they also taught math, history, art, music and special education.
Districts also explained that hiring more teachers from abroad helps increase the percentage of minority teachers in a district, something the state has been encouraging. As of the 2020-21 school year, 10 percent of teachers in Connecticut were minorities, compared to just over half of the student population.
Hammond said bringing more teachers of color into school districts was one of the factors that pushed him to start the exchange program.
“It’s very powerful for students to be able to relate to their teachers culturally, linguistically, see themselves reflected in the skin and the culture of that teacher, because it really encourages those students that they can become professionals, and to become more engaged in the educational process,” he said. “And it’s very powerful for those students’ families because they’re able to speak with a teacher in a culturally responsive way … and it really helps build that trust and that engagement between the families and the education process.”
When Cortico Rosario was preparing to come to Hartford, the IAG sponsored his visa, but the cost of travel and finding an apartment fell to him. He sold his car and, with that money and his savings, paid for his flight and other expenses.
Finding an apartment was another challenge. He stayed in a hotel for two weeks trying to find a place, but because he was from the Dominican Republic, he had no credit score or records to show potential landlords. Finally, he said, Torres was able to connect him with someone who knew of an apartment he could rent.
In Hartford, he teaches English to eighth-graders who are non-native speakers at McDonough Middle School. He estimated that more than three-fourths of students who spoke a language other than English were Spanish-speakers, with a large number of students also speaking Portuguese.
Cortico Rosario said he could see the students’ progress as he worked with them throughout the year.
“Many of these kids, they know the language, but they feel afraid to speak because they think that if they make a mistake, somebody will make fun of them,” he said. “We can just guide them, just – ‘You don’t have to be afraid. It doesn’t matter if you have an accent. The purpose of the language is to communicate. If you [can] communicate, good, you’re doing great.’ And then you can see how they can start growing.”
Mendia said that there is a wealth of research that shows that having teachers from diverse backgrounds improves academic outcomes for minority students.
“Students who have a teacher who linguistically is able to connect with them in their native language is really powerful and creates a sense of community and connectedness in the classroom,” Mendia said.
Torres said the district also helped the teachers from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic get settled in by connecting them in social gatherings, providing a housing stipend to support teachers from Puerto Rico for the first month, and partnering with a real estate agent and with Enterprise to help the teachers from Puerto Rico find housing and transportation.
Beyond simply teaching the language, she added, the teachers were exposing students to a different culture.
Cortico Rosario said the teachers in Hartford put on a spelling bee for the students and did activities for Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month; and Torres said the teachers from Puerto Rico had started a salsa-dancing club for the students after school.
“We want them to share their culture, share the language, the love of the island with our students, and not just our students from Puerto Rico and [the Dominican Republic], but all of our students. Because we know that research says that all of our students can benefit from having a diverse teaching staff,” Torres said.
And the shared culture and language in the area makes a difference not only for the students, but for the teachers as well.
Cortico Rosario said when he was looking for places to teach in the U.S., he thought of Connecticut as the ideal place because of its proximity to New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where he has family. The state is also in the same time zone as the Dominican Republic, and a direct flight is four to five hours and relatively cheap.
Cortico Rosario said during his summers working in the U.S. while he was in university, he was living in Maryland, where there were very few other Latin people.
“Sometimes I try to cook Dominican food for me and it was impossible for me to gather the ingredients to create, to do that meal,” he said. . “And I felt so far away from my culture.”
But after coming to Hartford, he said he felt immediately at home.
“Here, it’s just like I am in the Dominican Republic, because here there are a lot of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans. Everywhere you can find Latin food or Latin entertainment things,” he said. “I’m not in my country … but I feel like I’m pretty close to [my country.]”