Prior to leaving Puerto Rico for Connecticut, Adriana Beltran-Rodriguez didn’t know anyone who had visited the state.
“I saw that Hartford Public Schools had a recruitment program, and they were coming to Puerto Rico to do interviews,” said Beltran-Rodriguez. “I went and they liked me and I thought, ‘Now I know three people in Connecticut!’”
Amid a shortage of bilingual teachers, the Hartford Public School District is addressing the problem by recruiting teachers directly from the island. Beltran-Rodriguez arrived a year ago through a pilot version of the program Paso a Paso, or step by step.
Inside Michael D. Fox Elementary School, Beltran-Rodriguez is one of two TESOL teachers who make up a team of seven to support about 230 multilingual learners from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Island and worldwide.
Shortly after arriving in Hartford, Beltran-Rodriguez filled her desire to be in a diverse environment. Inside her TESOL classroom, she created a colorful poster to greet her students with a “Hello!” in over 70 languages.
“I was interested in helping the students feel like they’re not completely alienated in the school. For them to know that there’s someone that cares about them and wants them not only to succeed in English but to honor their culture and their language,” Beltran-Rodgriguez said.
Hartford Public Schools have over 17,000 students, and more than half are Hispanic or Latino; more than 1 in 5 are English language learners.
Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez says the district is facing an overall teacher shortage, currently operating with only 75% of its staff.
“So this is a novel approach to help Puerto Rican bilingual teaching talent gain certification in Connecticut, and specifically bolster the Hartford Public Schools teaching force,” Torres-Rodriguez said.
Research shows that academic outcomes for English language learners are better when students are first taught in their native language and English.
Through its pilot program, the district began looking to fill positions in bilingual elementary education. Now they want to find bilingual teachers to fill content areas like math, science and world languages. And there’s a high need for special education teachers.
The district wants to hire up to 15 teachers from Puerto Rico.
Before learning about the opportunity to migrate, Beltran-Rodriguez contemplated leaving the island without a secure job. During the last semester of her studies at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras, Beltran-Rodriguez was recruited to teach in Hartford.
Daisy Torres, director of services for multilingual learners in the Hartford district, said their team works closely with incoming teachers on their path to certification.
“So we will work with candidates who are close, or who may need support with a class or a program,” Torres said. “We offer all of those financial incentives to help them get through the certification process.”
Torres said that by working with the state Department of Education’s interstate agreement, they may accept completion of a state-approved educator preparation program from another U.S. state or territory.
“So if a candidate is close to certification or already certified in a content area, then it’s really important that we sit with them. And we go through their path to certification, because everybody’s in a different place,” Torres said.
With one semester left, Beltran-Rodriguez made her way to Hartford shortly after graduation.
Paso a Paso will include two years of support services for teachers to relocate and adjust to Hartford’s community. Selected candidates receive a competitive salary, a $5,000 signing bonus and a moving stipend. They’ll also receive membership to the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.
On the island
Meanwhile, in the past month on the island, teachers have led strikes and protests demanding fair salaries and dignified pensions.
Edwin Morales, vice president of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico, said the federation has witnessed an exodus of teachers from the island.
“We have personal experiences of many friends and colleagues who have had to opt for migration in order to have better conditions of employment and salary, because the cost of life in Puerto Rico is extremely high,” Morales said in Spanish.
The base salary of a public school teacher in Puerto Rico is $1,750 a month, a number that Morales said has not seen an increase in over 10 years.
Back in her classroom in Hartford, Beltran-Rodriguez said that by leaving the island she’s found a wealth of opportunities and rewards teaching bilingual students in Hartford.
She also said she’s following in her grandfather’s footsteps: He also left to teach on the mainland in the 1960s, and the stability of that job secured his retirement in Puerto Rico today.
“There are so many wonderful things about Puerto Rico, but the truth is, for teachers, it’s a really hard time and it’s only gotten harder since my grandfather’s time, because basically there’s no retirement anymore.”