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Buffalo schools head to Puerto Rico in search of bilingual teachers

The steady influx of Spanish-speaking students from Puerto Rico into Buffalo classrooms is driving a drastic increase in the population of pupils learning English.

Now, school officials hope to convince teachers from the island to follow.

Buffalo Public Schools administrators are taking their recruiting efforts to Puerto Rico this week, hoping to solve the pressing demand for bilingual teachers. It's a job category that's difficult to fill because the pool of potential candidates is small and in great demand all over the country.

"Our population of Spanish-speakers is growing the fastest," said Nadia Nashir, the district's assistant superintendent overseeing multilingual education. "We have students right now who are learning from teachers who can't communicate with them in their native language.  We recognize this is a problem and we know our kids can't wait any longer."

The recruiting effort underscores what has become a persistent challenge for Buffalo schools as the population of Spanish-speaking students grows faster than the district can hire educators who speak their native language to teach them.

It also reflects ongoing efforts to diversify the city's teaching force to better reflect the student population. Last week, district leaders announced a new partnership with SUNY Buffalo State that aims to identify high school students interested in going into the profession. Given that students of color make up more than three-quarters of the district's enrollment, the effort is expected to eventually produce more minority teachers.

Buffalo looks to own students to diversify teaching force

Although about 19 percent of Buffalo students are Hispanic, just 4 percent of teachers are. And Hispanic students constitute the largest group of students learning English.

"The bottom line is we have 60 percent of our students who don't speak English and we can't recruit enough staff to accommodate them," said Principal Kathryn Foy of Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy on the West Side.

A first-grader concentrates on school work at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy. Hispanic students now account for 85 percent of the school's population, and virtually all of them are from Puerto Rico. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Each week, Foy welcomes a few new students from Puerto Rico into her classrooms. The vast majority speaks Spanish and little to no English. Hispanic students now account for 85 percent of the school's population, and virtually all of them are from Puerto Rico.

What's happening in Foy's classrooms is a direct result of the continued migration of people from Puerto Rico over the past decade, as a weak economy and prolonged recession have forced many people to the mainland. The Pew Research Center reports that between 2005 and 2015 the island had a net population loss of 446,000.

Some came to Buffalo, where between 2010 and 2015 the population of Puerto Ricans increased about 20 percent – double the growth seen the previous decade.

The children in that group have driven a 60 percent increase in the population of Buffalo students learning English over the past six years. Although that group includes immigrants and refugees from other countries, students whose first language is Spanish account for the largest proportion at 33 percent, and the vast majority of them are from Puerto Rico.

The district places many of those newcomers at Herman Badillo, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grades, because as a bilingual school it has more resources to support them as they learn English, while also mastering other subjects in their native language.

Ideally, the students would spend their day working with a bilingual teacher who could teach them some subjects in their native language while they work on becoming fluent in English.

"Research shows that using a student's native language is the best way for them to learn," Nashir said.

A bilingual teacher assistant helps teach a unit in a Spanish speaking area of a classroom at Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

But it is so difficult finding bilingual teachers that Foy has had to staff classrooms with educators who only speak one language, typically English. In those instances she hires Spanish-speaking aides to work with students when needed. She also invites Spanish-speaking student teachers to assist in her classrooms.

"We've been pretty creative here," she said.

Buffalo administrators hope their recruiting efforts in Puerto Rico will help.

The city is following the lead of other urban school systems, including Dallas and Houston, that have visited the island to recruit teachers who have recently been put out of work as the government there closed hundreds of schools because of economic instability.

The recruiters also hope Buffalo will appeal to potential candidates because it already has a large Puerto Rican community. They have been relying on connections from within the community to help get the word out.

Potential candidates were already filling interview spots in the weeks leading up to the visit. Administrators believe that interest was generated from word of mouth and social media.

Any potential recruits will be eligible to obtain a conditional certification while they work toward their New York State credentials.

"We have such a large population of Puerto Rican students here," said Jamie Warren, the district's associate superintendent for human relations. "We're hoping that's a draw for them."

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