Hartford, Conn. schools bring in 16 teachers from Puerto Rico, but islanders fear ‘brain drain’

Weaver High School history teacher Marcos Gabriel Valentin-Ortiz is one of 16 teachers recruited from Puerto Rico this year though Hartford, CT’s Paso a Paso program to recruit bilingual teachers. (Dave Wurtzel / Connecticut Public)

Back in April, Marcos Gabriel Valentin-Ortiz wanted to get a sense of what Hartford, Conn., looked like.

“In Puerto Rico, I didn’t see many opportunities and possibilities to progress,” Valentin-Ortiz said. “After eight years with the same salary, I was beginning to feel a little bit frustrated.”

After an offer to more than triple his salary, help with housing, and a signing bonus – he became one of 16 teachers who are now in Hartford’s classrooms.

In March, Hartford school administrators and recruiters made their way to Puerto Rico looking for bilingual talent to fill content areas like math, science, and history.

It’s part of Paso a Paso – a program to recruit bilingual teachers to fill much-needed roles.

The district worked closely with Daniel Diaz, a consultant who’s been recruiting teachers from Puerto Rico for 15 years. He said the greatest advantage for these teachers is their citizenship status. That’s because “the teachers in Puerto Rico are American citizens,” he said.

That allows these teachers to avoid the J-1 Visa process, which was created to let foreign nationals teach or study in the United States.

“We don’t have to go through the J-1 Visa,” Diaz said. “The teachers from Puerto Rico come here to stay.”

But Professor Carmen Bellido, at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez, said she worries the higher pay and opportunities luring teachers to the mainland United States could lead to a brain drain back on the island.

“It does concern all of us universities that have teacher preparation programs, that the intensive recruitment has also reduced the number of students who want to be teachers,” Bellido said.

Normally, she said, she would place roughly 120 students each semester into teaching training sites in Puerto Rico.

“This past semester what we had was 32 student teachers in practice,” Bellido said.

Since Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, followed by a devastating earthquake and a global pandemic, college enrollment has dropped by 14%, according the National Center on Education Statistics.

Back in Hartford, Marcos Gabriel Valentin-Ortiz is now settled into his new city and teaching history at Weaver High School.

“Starting Weaver has been a challenge because of the new process of how things are done in this school,” Valentin-Ortiz said. “So my first day was like a shock!”

He’s said he has also been surprised by the differences of working with second and third-generation Puerto Rican students.

“It’s not like I thought, trying to communicate the culture that I think is Puerto Rican, perhaps, they don’t know the Puerto Rico that I know,” he said.

With just a week under his belt, Valentin-Ortiz said he made the right decision.

He said he misses home, his friends, and the grandfather who raised him, but he believes this is his time to grow.

“I’m still adapting. Still learning. And that’s one of the things that I want… to learn new things and have an adventure,” Valentin-Ortiz said. “Hopefully I survive that adventure by the end of the year.”

This story was originally published by Connecticut Public, lead station of the New England News Collaborative.