Maressa Claudio had been teaching kindergarten for 13 years in Caguas, Puerto Rico, when she decided to take advantage of a different sort of opportunity:
To teach at P.S. 48@39 Martin Luther King Jr. School on Buffalo's East Side.
Claudio is one of nine new recruits from Puerto Rico who will start teaching in the Buffalo Public School District this fall.
The nine were feted Wednesday evening at a gathering in Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy on Elmwood Avenue.
There are various reasons behind their decisions.
In Puerto Rico, a weak economy, recession and overall economic instability has prompted more than 300 schools to close – so, for Claudio, Buffalo represented a brand-new opportunity.
"I like it. It sounds like we are going to do a great job," Claudio said on Wednesday.
In Buffalo, of the school district's 34,000 registered students, 2,000 of them are identified as English language learners, and the vast majority speak Spanish as their primary language, according to Nadia Nashir, assistant superintendent of multilingual education for the district.
"The other 3,000 are bilingual. They don't need that extra support. However, we're trying to ensure that the students see themselves in the curriculum and also see themselves in their teachers. We all know that there's power in that and lots of research there," Nashir said.
"We want to get them ready for the 21st century world economy. We want them to be bilingual, but that's true also for their non-Spanish speaking peers to also learn Spanish. Here, the Buffalo Public Schools, is an opportunity for them to become bilingual," she said, at the event on Wednesday evening.
The Buffalo Schools' Associate Superintendent for Human Resources, Jamie Warren, traveled to Puerto Rico to search for the bilingual teachers.
"What drove the recruitment effort was an increasing Spanish-speaking population," she said. "Every year we were seeing 100 to 200 and more students who were transitioning from Puerto Rico to Buffalo. We also have a large Puerto Rican community here that embraces and supports that transition."
"So it seemed very logical that we would recruit from Puerto Rico," Warren said.
Lawrence Ramos, a teacher in the Buffalo Public Schools for five years now, has something in common with the new teachers.
Ramos, too, is originally from Puerto Rico.
"My mama has been here since 1998," Ramos said, of his motivations for the move to Buffalo. "So I finished my bachelor's in Puerto Rico and I was looking for an option, basically like a journey, and I decided to move here and give it a try."
Ramos, who also is from Caguas in Puerto Rico, had no teaching experience prior to teaching in Buffalo, but noted that all the new recruits have years of teaching experience, which will help them with the transition from Puerto Rico to Buffalo.
"One of the teachers, she had been teaching for 23 years. I think that definitely, again, that the difference between the cultures and the school system is definitely different from the one in Puerto Rico. I think that the biggest challenge will be the language barrier, because some of us who come from Puerto Rico already speaking English still have to (get used to new dialects and idioms)," he said.
"It took me maybe a few months," Ramos recalled.
He now teaches bilingual special education at Lafayette International High School 207.
"I think it's definitely something that they should be considering. It's an opportunity. It's very important for the Hispanic student population here in Buffalo to be able to have a teacher that they can relate to and understands their culture and their language. Communication is the number one thing in education," Ramos said.
"The new teachers are very excited to be here in Buffalo. I'm excited for them, too, and I hope it works," he said, at the gathering at Badillo.
Buffalo School Superintendent Kriner Cash, who spoke at Wednesday's event, said the diminishing returns for teachers in Puerto Rico turned out to be a gain for Buffalo Public Schools.
"What I'm trying to do in some of our community schools… is to make them into what we call bilingual schools, where half the day's instruction is in English and half in Spanish," said Cash, who previously was superintendent for Miami-Dade Schools in Florida.
"We found in Miami, for example, the school's scores went way up when you have a bilingual school," said Cash. "So, yeah. We want all students to benefit from it."
The process of recruiting the new teachers began in March, when the district set up online registration for one-on-one interviews with potential candidates in Puerto Rico. Principals from the Buffalo School District also were able to Skype with candidates who would meet the specific needs of their individual schools.
"This is the first time I went to Puerto Rico to recruit. Dr. Cash charges us to dream big," said Warren, the administrator. "We struggled to staff our bilingual classrooms. We had exhausted our local resources and we had to think outside of the box for our recruitment effort."